ANN PAYNE lives with two Cairn Terriers and two cats on a steep and wooded hill on the edge of Morgantown WV. She has lived there under those trees for decades. Her house is full of books and odd things she has found outdoors. There is a shaded carp pond, visible from the living room window, through which the carp can be seen, gold gleaming in the dark water. She is visited here by adult children, grand children, friends.

[Ann's words in purple. Faith's in black.]



faith n ann payne copy Faith S. Holsaert (left), Ann Payne (right)


A friend who lived on Dunkard Creek called to say there had been a massive fish kill. Ann went to see for herself. Large numbers of green herons, who usually wade into the water to catch live fish, were feeding on the bodies of fish on the ground. There was a hand-made sign: “Who murdered our creek and who will save it?” Muskies and other fish floated dead in the water, The gills of fish were bleeding. Mud puppies which hide in the mud were frantically crawling, with their tiny fingers, trying to get to the air, but they were suffocating and dying. In the end, 90 species of plants and animals which had previously lived in the creek were gone.

Apprenticing in Biomedical Photography years ago, I discovered I am calm – even efficient – in the face of blood and guts.  It isn’t that. But there is something about helpless things suffering through no fault of their own that cuts very deep with me.  What got Reflections:  Homage to Dunkard Creek started wasn’t outrage first, but standing there in the creek and seeing all that suffering, those helpless being plunged into pain, misery, untimely death, and loving them and suffering helplessly with them. That was the heart of it. Then I got angry and frustrated, and then I had to do something.

    ann p rosy faced   Rosy Face Shiner, Sue Wyble


ann p crawdads   Crawdads, Jana Matusz


ann p toad   Fowler’s Toad, Ann Payne  


Dunkard wasn’t so much a protest as a way to introduce people to those amazing beings, their numbers, and how lucky we are to be blessed with such beauty, diversity and wonder.  And then to put it together, to see how awful that these beings were so disrespected, disregarded, and violated. It sounds corny but it’s that deep tenderness that I get to first and want to share.  It precedes the anger and action.  It is from there that I have to act .

Ann talking about the fishkill and the exhibit she curated with work by 90 artists, honoring the 90 species: Reflections: Homage to Dunkard CreeK

A slide show catalogue of the work:



 ann p big tree

A few years ago some people from Connecticut moved in up the hill and behind Ann’s house. The newcomers wanted a Connecticut sort of lawn. They cut down the numerous old trees which had been giving shade, offering habitat, and holding the soil in place.

 The trees…  Hearing their bodies crash to the ground day after day, the sound of the grinding up of their bodies, the crying of the animals and birds who had dwelt in them – again, suffering for them, with them, helpless. Then I got REALLY MAD and Year of the Tree was born.  YOTT 2013 also featured SHADY:  Our Neighbors the Trees, an exhibit of 27 artists from three states who answered, artistically, the question, “What do you see when you look at a tree?”  Where my ‘neighbor’ (who soon lost her job and retreated to Connecticut) saw only her own ego to which the trees were mere obstacles, pastel artist Susan Poffenbarger sees ancient beauty, Nik Botkin recreates their architectural wonder in giant metal sculptures, etc.  These artists see, love, and respect the trees, and through their work, invite others to do so.  

Morgantown’s Year of the Tree: There were hikes, and lectures, and trips to City Council, and contests, like the one for The Biggest Baddest Tree in Morgantown and a weekend of art: Carol Hummel guided people in yarning a big beauty on the arts campus.



ann p yarned tree



ann p stuio


The Passenger Pigeon Project, of which my friend Ann Rosenthal is one of the organizers, asked one artist from every U.S. state in which those birds had lived to create a piece in honor of the now-extinct bird.  

Passenger Pigeons, distinct from the familiar rock pigeons many call “flying rats,”once existed in such large numbers that when a mass of them passed overhead the sound was deafening and it took hours for the group to pass. Unlike rock pigeons, the Passenger Pigeons were a species native to North America.  A new book about the birds, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury), by  Joel Greenberg is reviewed in a recent New Yorker. Sadly, among other things, these birds who were so numerous they could be called a feathered river across the sky, were not only numerous but delicious. The hunting and eating of them contributed to their extinction

I ended up with (imo a kind of weird) vision, a wounded bird with a mountain-top removal site in the background.  I had to use all kinds of source photos and try to blend them together, but the point is that again – these beautiful creations were disregarded, destroyed, in fact mined, the hills for coal, the birds for meat.  Forever lost.  Then and now.



ann p c pigeon

url to New Yorker review, which contains a lot of information about Passenger Pigeons:



SHH… LISTEN! My current project  with Betsy Jaeger, Steve Lawson and Nik Botkin, is a 20-artist collaboration called Shhh . . . Listen!  an installation to premier at the Allegheny Highlands Climate Conference at Blackwater Falls State Park in early June 2014.  This project highlights 20 regionally common plant and animal species whose populations are dropping rapidly, but who are not yet ‘listed’ as threatened and endangered. The point is to alert the public to common species suffering and vanishing right under our noses (from climate change, habitat destruction, pollution).  In other words, let’s quickly start to pay attention.  We have a pending disaster we can prevent here and now.

Kai Lumumba Barrow

Gallery of the Streets installation. Because of the art, Kai is being evicted. Because of who she is — insurgent, intransigent, irreverent, principled, warrior – her art has become her house, filling every room with a shifting floor of mulch and sand and pebbles, making each doorway a difficult gateway, lowering the ceilings with ropes and wires from which images hang by clothes pins (“I don’t want my art stuck ON THE WALL”), propping books against the walls in stacks, placing books strategically, bringing in pansies (yes) and other growing plants, banners and scrolls of quotations. Even the closets have not escaped.

All quotes are from Kai Barrow, Swan Song Manifesto


1. kai in magnolia

3B. kai lumumba

3A. kai outdoors smile

Picture it: A multiracial, multi-gendered, intergenerational group of about 250 people are marching down the middle of the street in a neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The people are a loud bunch, carrying signs that read “Free Mumia Now!” and “Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”  Community members come out on their porch to wave at the group or raise a fist in solidarity.  There is a pick-up truck with a loud speaker rigged to a megaphone. People are reciting chants that rhyme and have each phrase and pause dedicated to memory. This performance has become ritualized.

There is a lull.  The speaker/chant leader is tired and needs a break.  He hands the megaphone to me. I am known for my energy. I hold the dubious title of “Cheerleader for the Movement.” Holding the megaphone, I wanted to see if we could transform our ritual. Could we inspire spontaneity and surprise within ourselves and each other? Could we share with this Black, working-class community whose neighborhood we entered, an expansive vision—one where Mumia’s freedom was tied in with their own liberation? I placed the megaphone to my lips and faced the crowd.

 Me: What do we want?

Chanters: Free Mumia!

Me: When do we want it?

Chanters: Now!


Me: What else do we want?

Chanters: [silence.]

Me: No really. What else do we want? Shout it out. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It doesn’t have to be scripted. Let’s make a cacophony of sound, shouting out our visions of what we want. [pleading] We don’t even have to do it for more than 60 seconds.

Chanters: [silence.]

Actually, there wasn’t complete silence. 



6. kai I would rediscover


5. kai hanging red lavender


4. kai waiting room


7. kai yellow african



A culture of resistance, protest politics and institution-building by people of color, feminists, queer people, and poor people in the 1960s and ’70s filled me with pleasure and purpose.  It was a period of design and imagination—a period where people re-envisioned and re-structured their lives. Even as a kid, I knew that things were changing. I saw and felt the electricity of change. Nothing was static.  It seemed to me that everything was in question: from diet to living arrangements; interpersonal relationships to altered identities, from the ways that people asserted and responded to power to a new articulation of labor and production.  During this period, people reached beyond national boundaries and re-defined themselves as members of a global community (and in some cases, interplanetary community—see Sun Ra). And though these shifts were taking place on different scales and at a different pace, corresponding to class, race, gender, age, geographic location and sexual orientation, everyone was influenced by this cultural, social, political and economic re-imagining. This was a transformative moment, one that unleashed our imaginations and spurred our actions. We saw what we could be….



8. kai asylum surgery


9. kai black white alter


10. kai alley

11. kai sassafras



We were unprepared for the brutality of the State. As beautiful as this period was, we were also powerful enough to pose a threat so significant to the functioning of the State, that it systematically set out to squash our burgeoning revolution. Individual leaders were discredited, driven into exile, imprisoned, and murdered. Intra-and inter-organizational conflict resulted in a weakened movement that we are still recovering.  Culture was depoliticized and exploited….



13. kai wolverine hanging

14. kai jade alter

15. zogi indoors 2

My fifth grade school year was also the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As is the tradition, many young people from throughout the country arrived in Chicago to protest the War and other repressive policies and my family and other residents of the co-op apartment we lived in, agreed to house several of these protestors, among them David Dellinger.  After Mayor Richard J. Daley gave the order for the Chicago Police Department to “shoot first, ask questions later,” my new out of town “friends” arrived back at our house broken, bloodied, and angry at the police, the mayor, and a system that shoots and kills its children.  I was heartbroken to see people in pain and I too became angry. Later that night, I was awakened by gunshots as the police surrounded our apartment and forced Dellinger out of the building. That day I experienced grief, anger and terror—all directly linked to the violence and abuse of power by the State….



16. zogi outdoors


17. kai libertad

18. kai bricktop

19. kai ayanna red

20. kai femm cave quilt

22. kai hoop in tree

21. kai malcolm x


This contradiction creates a “raw opposition” that is explosive.  It can change the terms of a space.  As organizers, our challenge is to identify the nature of our raw opposition and build/create within the space between oppression and freedom. We are charged with entering the space of raw opposition with clarity, precision, and analysis, passion, energy, and generosity. In Black tradition, this is known as the “Cool.” Think Miles Davis.


23A. kai shirlette


23B. kai pam kagele?


24. kai erin


25. kai erin cath





26. kai Jess


23C. kai Nia painted

Video trailer by film-maker and organizer Jazz Franklin, a preview of Kai Barrow’s “visual opera,” entitled “Gallery of the Streets,” installed in Durham, NC April 3-6, 2014.



See you next Monday: a month of Mondays with activist artists I know: Kai Lumumba Barrow, Ann Payne, Julia Wallace, Nia Wilson, in alphabetical order, because no ordering of these women is possible.
























Some people think there is such a thing as safety.

respectability          safety           illusion





The Mission, San Francisco
To walk these streets is to walk the faultline between wealth and poverty.

I walk Valencia Street from 24th street to 16th. In some blocks I do not recognize where I am from a year ago. Rectangular glass, metal,and concrete buildings have usurped the places where old buildings stood. On Sunday, working through the Brunch Swarm is a piece of work. Stores sell organic cotton clothing, … and old furniture and clothing sold as retro with an ironic wink to hipster insiders. The old places are here, too, some of them. La Cumbre for burritos, Fritz for crepes, New York pizza where you can buy dinner for a couple of bucks, in contrast to the new places with their chrome and glass, their dead-stylish neutral grays and browns, khaki, black. Women in tights, big shiny shoes and skinny jackets race past, pushing their babies in aluminum buggies.

Walk up Mission, one block parallel to Valencia. Start at the 16th Street BART plaza, never empty, always thronging with men and women and children, shopping carts, chihuahuas, chihuahuas in shopping carts, wheelchairs, people reeling with substances, people asking for money, people yelling. Between 16th and 24th, the stores include Thrift Town, holes in the wall selling everything from luggage to skinny skinny jeans; outside some stores stacks of mangos, baby fist red bananas, pads of cactus, sometimes the smell over-ripe, water thrown over the pavement to wash away the night before. Families marshall their children to school or appointments.

It is not that one of these is better, but one is squeezing out the other to make The Mission “safe” for the new settlers. It boils down to the illusion of safety. On one side of the faultline, people can afford to think they can create safe lives behind their gates, that because they can they will buy safety for themselves and their children. On the other side, that illusion would be dangerous: there is no safety.



They blame Eve who
answered desire,
knew better than god

the fruit of
her loins condemned:


Mountain schoolhouse
potatoes and onions in the side lot
children walk out of the hills from hand built houses
some don’t know faucets.


Chain link fences off
Cougar Mountain Coal.
Outside in Cougar bottom
eleven trailers shelter brain cancer.


I heard a man groped a little girl.


The earth movers
throw up dust the color of army.
It chalks over the poplar leaves
and ashes the laundry on the line.
It comes between the sick and tired lovers.
It slinks a cur dog, impounded:

[Faith S. Holsaert, appeared in Prairie Wolf Review 10/12]




On the occasion of fracturing my lower arm

I fall like clockwork

three or four times a year,

shoulder jolt and palm sting.

I broke a hip;

nearly bit through my tongue

(mouth inflating with blood);

opened a cranial bleed on black ice.

Ma’am are you all right?

I take their hands. I smile and

repeat, I’m okay. Smile. Nice

old falling down woman.

Let me just hold your

hand, I say, trying to reach my feet.

At every step I talk to my feet,

“Up,” and again “Up,” I say.

Place the heel down first

like that tai chi cat

taking her walk while

the next fall waits

in the wings.



The slip of my tongue:

Occasionally, I call the man “she” by mistake. Only once or twice a year, but it is awful. It is public. I thought when I understood this mistake caused him pain, I could do nothing but stop, rather than cause pain to someone I care for, someone who is brave, someone in my innermost community.

But then I do it again.

I could say, but he sometimes flicks his hair in that way. I could say, but he wears that feathery boa. I could say…. but in this situation I am not the one to say. he is. The shifting, uneven edge can enlarge, become a terrain. The fluid edge between the monoliths of “male” and “female” an unmapped footpath.

Yes, the feathery boas, draping the throat, their feather air something to breathe instead of things as they are, sometimes pulled up to beautiful blue eyes, stubborn fortress against mistakes.

The fragile, undefined terrain of speaking: two people; what you do not know. What you do not know you do not know. The yawning edge between getting it wrong and wanting to get it right.


photos: trip to Ireland, 2007


I want ocean mist, to ride my bike into ocean mist on the wildlife loop. Because it is morning. I am still a couple of decades from my seventies.I ride alone into this not-water not-air which coats my bare arms. I come from a small rented space where it is just me, the owners’ old furniture, and my writing. When I walk and when I cook and when I bike onto the wildlife loop and when I am falling asleep in the lumpy old bed with the rough bleach-scented sheets, I think about my writing or about some quarrel back home.

On a pine spar, I see what I imagine is a sea hawk, an osprey, but when the weighty-bodied bird with its long head takes flight, by some alchemy, perhaps by silhouette, I realize I am seeing a bald eagle. Don’t know if I actually see or am merely guessing the white head. The bird’s fleet heaviness, its solemnity, the small head and the business-like body: an eagle.

Beside where my bike tires flick over the trail, a young rabbits freezes gelatinous eyes upon my rolling enormity.

I pass the two geese and their young; the gander hisses and holds his threatening, reptile head to the ground beside my tire. When I have seen them feeding in wetland grasses, the geese could be dinosaurs with rounded bodies, long undulating necks and little heads. They are officious community members and vigilant parents, fanatically guarding the fluff ball goslings. They hiss, venomosly.

I ride a trail at the shifting edge between wetland and sand, close to the wavering line between ocean water and land. In the distance, the line between sky and water. And beyond, the things I may never know.

kapil 1 the whole

Mother b 1909, daughter b 1943, grand-daughter b 1970

It is featherstitched, gold, sewn in the hand of a woman who doesn’t ordinarily sew, but she has a grand child coming, the baby far away in her daughter’s abdomen. Detroit. She is featherstitching the edges of fabrics which come from her undeclared lover, African fabrics. In 1970 still a novelty. Some say, unchild-like. Her heart is wild as her cigarette smoke and her stitches for this unborn child. It is a mere four years before this mother’s death.

kapil 1 african

The daughter walks the edge which in West Virginia can be above the eroded bank, the creek below spangled with orange and blue pollution, or it can be the edge of the night driving home late, willing willing the lover to be there first. The daughter has chosen to be late, because she wants the windows to be lit when she arrives, but the driveway is empty, the country house dark and alone on its point of land. Between the beginning of winter and hard winter, there is the apricot blush of sedge in the bottom land. The shifting edge shapes itself along the spine of seventeen years without her own child, each year thinking, she is 22 years old, now. She is 23. She is 24, and then it is way too later, the absent grand-child is 38 and they reunite.

kapil 1 peace

The grand-daughter for whom the baby quilt was made with its brilliant  turkey reds and cerulean and greens and in its center the lavender peace symbol against daffodil. The seventeen years, the daughter has the quilt, but the grand-daughter is gone. The daughter repairs the quilt with gingham, blue ground and tiny flowers, cloth she once used to make a shirt with little heart buttons and little buttoned cuffs for the grand-daughter when she started school. After the absence the daughter returns the quilt and her daughter has it in the Seneca for a while, but when the grand-daughter is afraid, she puts the quilt in a black plastic bag along with the Red Riding Hood raincoat and gives the bag to her brother who lives on the other side of the bay. Briefly she is gone once more. The new shifting edge is the days of not knowing, but the grand-daughter comes through a ward and an untenable makeshift center in an old house. The grand-daughter chooses the Mission. The daughter has the quilt. The grandmother is dead.

kapil 1 gingham

not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but                        snapshots

Irene mich

week 4:  have you had enough darkness yet

In January, the dark month of my birth, I read Irene McKinney aloud.

Around 30 years ago, my WV writing friend Colleen Anderson and  I spent an evening reading aloud in a motel room with the poets Irene McKinney and Maggie Anderson. I sat on the cheaply carpeted floor, my back propped against one of the beds. The other three were on chair or bed, or on the floor, too. Maggie and Irene, and perhaps Colleen, were smoking. Words and smoke issued from their mouthes in what I, who had quit but who had not stopped remembering nicotine, imagined must be a giddy rush. The words, grand mountain words at that, became confounded with the delicious remembered crawl of smoke through my veins. And when the night was done, late, hours after we had started, I left that motel room with the sweet drowse, the muddled come-down of reading poetry aloud.

About twenty years later, I spent twelve hospital hours with Irene. After too-long of telling her doctor that something was not right, she had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and after some other attempts at treatment, had undergone a bone marrow transplant. In the corridor I hygienically and ritually washed my hands three times. I passed hospital room after hospital room in which someone lay emaciated or swollen, solitary or hovered over, plastic lines and leads and lit up screens and drapes on tracks. And there she was, a small gowned figure in bed, hair aflame (always). I didn’t know her well, so entering her room I entered twelve hours of rare intimacy, during which she spoke in her twang as pointed as barbed wire, her mind agile and busy as a sparrow. I offered her water and spoonfuls of ice. Maybe there was a small bird’s amount of food. We were. We were in that medical cell of sitting. I sat beside her while she slept, the space so small that we shared one another’s breaths.

She survived the transplant, returned to her country house on the land her family had worked for generations, for several years returned to her own work of writing poetry.

And then she died.

Reading McKinney’s posthumous collection, Have you Had Enough Darkness Yet? was to say good-bye all over again. Her mountain twang, her duality —saucy irreverence beside burning reverence — are so embedded in her work that even when I, born a Yankee, read her poems aloud, her mountain spirit rises up into this life. Reading these poems aloud was to come so close to death, to come to the very edge, to be ravaged again by the loss of this spirit who described the precipice before she slipped over it.


There’s a passage through the night
where someone awards me, hangs
the tassle of distress off to the side
and replaces it with a badge
indicating that I did one thing
right by continuing what
I’d started when I didn’t know
it had begun, and I was sure
of no reward. Blessings were not
forthcoming, daily distress.
The path is aerial seen from
above. I startle myself
and feel I have no choice but
to proceed by inches. I pull down
the magic curtain, uncurb the car,
get in and drive, coaxing
the pattern to relief.

And you have been with me
through the long and hateful night
although you are only a shadow.
You have stayed behind
my shoulder and I’ve sheltered
you there, made a place for
you in my mind. In loneliness,
in rain, in the loss of breath,
you have been with me
and I have not failed you
because I continued to speak
when you begged me not
to inquire further and I spoke
to your fears in a voice of grief,
saying, yes they are gone and
will not return, but you
are still breathing. And I sang
you a song that came through
a trail of nerves down the generations
through all we have read together
and all we have remembered.
Remember the words, and I’ll remember you.

(Irene McKinney)

If you would like to hear Irene read her work aloud (including “At 24,” below):

The same irascible spirit at the beginning of her life as a poet wrote this blazing anthem (from her 2004 collection, Vivid Companion):

At 24

At 24, I had written and read until my eyes were bloodshot,

spending nights and early mornings in a fervor

of page-filling while the baby slept.

I was writing to save my life as I knew it

could be. I was writing to inscribe my body

on a stone tablet, writing in defiance and silence.

Nothing could stop me, I kept saying No

to the paper, I kept saying you can’t have me

to the Junior League, to the tiny streets, to impossible

jobs and prissy motherhood. I was certain

there was another way to love and work than the

simian forms evolved so far. One morning I drank

eight cups of coffee and wrote four poems

and I didn’t even care that my head was bursting

and I was lurching around while I scrubbed the bathroom.

Another time I left the children with my mother

and lay in bed all day reading a biography of Van Gogh

and groaning. What a life, what a life.

I thought about Toulouse-Lautrec, that little freak.

I was a freak myself, but only in private.

I stared at his bronzes and terra cottas and oranges

until they pulled the color nerves out of my chest.

That was a long time ago and now I know that

I knew nothing then, and if I had I wouldn’t

have gone on. Dear Mr. President, I said, Dear Dean,

Dear Husband, Dear Our Father, Dear Tax Collector,

you don’t know me. I don’t know what I am,

but whatever it is, you can’t have me.

(Irene McKinney)

photo: Julia Kramer

not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but           snapshots

reading walcott 2

3.  the sea’s scales stuttering in the sun

In the pitch black mornings of late December and early January, I fell in love with the bounty of Nobel Laureate poet Derek Walcott.*

Aloud, the complexity of his work –– the fabric of music and sounds, the underlying weave of history, the vermillion and gold strands of emotion –– is almost too much for my 71 year old human voice to carry, my ear to hear, my heart to let in. I am struck dumb by the person who has made these poems. I have listened to him on YouTube, his poetry read aloud in his Caribbean English. I read each of his poems, including the one below, and can parse it for rhyme and slant rhyme, for rhythm, for stand-out words and references,  for music which could be analyzed. But I don’t.

An essay by Pimone Triplett** on the sublime places Walcott’s work in the context of colonialism; how Walcott’s self-aware (and self as a highly educated colonial in the “Western” tradition) post-colonial use of romantic natural images lets us experience the exhaustion of the sublime; his sublime landscape as the object of exploitative newcomers. It is a subtly but vastly different take on colonialism than what I experience as the self-hatred and sourness of V.S. Naipaul.

The first seven poems stand grouped in a section titled “Bounty.” The ancient Greek Argo sails here and Captain Bligh’s “Bounty,” and paradoxically and intentionally, two European figures of poverty outside the bounds of “civilization:” Poor Tom, or Tom o’Bedlam (the persona assumed by Edgar in King Lear, an imposter of poverty and confusion) and John Clare (the son of peasants, a romantic nature poet, who spent the final twenty years of his life in an asylum). These two are imagined present in Walcott’s island landscape. This might be rich enough material, but the structure of this cloth is determined by Walcott’s mother, who has passed. This bounty is a cry of mourning.

I have seen and loved enormous articulate canvases brimming with strokes and pools of color which, if I were to examine a few isolated square inches, would dissolve into meaningless surface. I have seen and loved massive works which, reduced to small parts, resolve themselves into throbbing, exact, beautifully wrought miniatures. These enameled exactitudes laid one beside the other –– integral to a whole which may be harmonious, tangled, or even at war with itself, the small pieces in their individual unity placed beside others which might be expected to complement, but do not; others which might be expected to war against and contradict one another, but which are eerily at peace and “right” beside one another.


Miraculous as when a small cloud of cabbage-whites

circles a bush, the first flakes of the season

spun over Brookline, on Beacon; the afternoon lights

would come on by four, but everyone said, “So soon?”

at the multiplying butterflies, though it was late November,

but also because they had forgotten the miracle,

though the trees were stricken and brief day’s ember

didn’t catch in their firewood; they did not recall

the elation of flakes and butterflies that their element

is a joy quickly forgotten, and thus with the fall

certainly gone, the leaves dimmed, their flares spent

the old metaphor whispered to everyone’s mouth

about age, white hair, the Arctic virginity of death,

that the flakes spun like ashes; but before my heart fled south,

my farewell confirmed by the signature of your breath,

white butterflies circling, settling in your hair, that could soothe

your closed eyelids trembling like cabbage-whites

on my island road, the sea’s scales stuttering in the sun.

(Derek Walcott)

* Derek Walcott, The Bounty, (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998)

** Tobin and Triplett, Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play (University of Michigan Press, 2008)

not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but                        snapshots

reading Brand2. Our inheritance in the Diaspora is to live in this inexplicable space

The mornings remained dark longer and longer in October and into December. I was reading Dionne Brand’s Map to the Door of no Return. Some mornings, pronouncing pages upon pages of her words left me dizzy with inhalation and exhalation. Reading aloud, I slowed to ride my own breath to persevere word by surprising word into this amazing book which entirely re-defines the word diaspora. Say the word aloud: the sound of disappearance, loss, finality.

I hadn’t read Map to the Door of no Return before, so I never knew where I would land.  Literally. It could be Trinidad, Brand’s island of Afro-Caribbean birth; it could be Grenada during the 1983 invasion; could be Amsterdam where a Black woman stood displayed in a brothel window; or the teeming city of Toronto where a single mother battled the courts or the welfare system; or it could be the backwoods cabin in a forest wilderness where, always the outsider and always alone –– Brand wrote.

The book is its own self: short essay-memoir-poem texts that defy categorization. Sometimes a longer piece will be separated into shorter numbered sections, creating the surprises and dissonance of juxtaposition. Demarcating these texts are short quotes or musings entitled “Maps.” Here is the first map: The rufous hummingbird travels five thousand miles from summer home to winter home and back. This hummingbird can fit into the palm of a hand. Its body defies the known physics of energy and flight. It knew its way before all known map-makers. It is a bird whose origins and paths are the blood of its small body. It is a bird whose desire to find its way depends on drops of nectar from flowers.

The last “Maps” entry: It is not a question of rootlessness but of the miracle of roots, the miracle of a dialogue with eclipsed selves which appearances may deny us or into which they may lead us (Wilson Harris, quoted).

The book opens with thirteen year old Dionne Brand asking her grandfather, over and over again, where their people come from and his not answering. Out of his not-answer grows a gap. … the rupture this exchange with my grand-father revealed was greater than the need for familial bonds. It was a rupture in history a rupture in the quality of being. It was also a physical rupture, a rupture of geography.

The book ends in Vancouver in the year 2000. Two women of African descent ride a city bus driven by a man from Africa. A Salish woman whose ancestors had lived on the land which became Vancouver gets on the bus. She asks the driver for directions. Brand says, despite the others who might have been on the bus, there were only four people in this drama: the two women of African descent, the African driver, and the Salish woman, as they drove over and along and across ancient Salish pathways which have been obliterated except in peoples’ memories.

The door is a place, real, imaginary and imagined. As islands and dark continents are. It is a place which exists or existed. The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed. It is a door which makes the word door impossible and dangerous, cunning and disagreeable.

There is the sense in the mind of not being here or there, of no way out or in. As if the door had set up its own reflection. Caught between the two we live in the Diaspora, in the sea in between. Imagining our ancestors stepping through these portals one senses people stepping out into nothing; one senses a surreal space, an inexplicable space. One imagines people so stunned by their circumstances, so heartbroken as to refuse reality. Our inheritance in the Diaspora is to live in this inexplicable space. That space is the measure of our ancestors’ step through the door toward the ship. One is caught in the few feet in between. The frame of the doorway is the only space of true existence.

[Dionne Brand, Map to the Door of No Return]


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