Archives for category: women

Context: Nia Wilson of SpiritHouseNC has said: all well and good to have protests in Chicago and Oakland, but she needs white people here in Durham to be in the streets. This is the challenge.

We are poisoned by hatred. We are poisoned by industries which do not care about us, ourselves, our communities. Please bear with me.

A lung permeated with coal dust, or of a person with Black Lung Disease, is black like a lump of coal. As the extraneous coal dust infiltrates the living pink tissue of the lung, the tissue becomes stiff, unyielding, dead.

For a hundred years or so, the medical world denied the existence of this killing disease; for there to be such a disease did not “work” with the industry’s need for workers, all of whom had lungs. Following a massive peoples’ struggle, the disease now known as Coal Miners’ Pneumoconiosis or Black Lung was recognized and a federal compensation program was begun.

The lungs of long-time cigarette smokers can also look like this.

I grew up in a household of smoking adults. My mother smoked while I was in utero. I smoked for almost twenty years, from my late teens to my mid thirties. Unfiltered. One or two packs a day. Except when I was pregnant. Because of my children I quit, but I was so addicted that for seven years after quitting when I had a choice, in a meeting or elsewhere, I would sit next to a smoker, so I could suck in a little hit.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the emotions associated with the lungs, which bring pure air into the body and transform it, are grief and loss. In TCM my dry cough might be associated with fire accumulated inside the lungs.

There is a metaphoric pony in this pile of manure (what must we breathe in, to have fire in our lungs?), actually from top to bottom a herd of shaggy, wily, and wild metaphor ponies.

We survive these assaults on our bodies, but they take a toll. When I was young, I could afford to be more cavalier about this.

My lungs, my breathing apparatus, are my point of vulnerability. I have coughed through most of 2016, sometimes coughing enough that I can not speak. Sometimes missing people and gatherings because I was coughing.  I am being responsible. I hate this. I am not critically sick, but I am chronically so. I am working with conventional medicine and otherwise (while I have medicare. I still remember my mother’s elation when medicare was first passed).

Nia, I need to get a little more well to fight this fight. This fight is my first obligation, an obligation inherited from my chain-smoking mother. I am gonna be in the streets. Can not let the coughing deprive me of my voice.

I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment. I was hoping to approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments happen in context: the grid and grids of power within which I exist. In the end, understanding myself is not enough. I have to see and work to change the context in which I exist.

 

I. HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

 

1. DEFINITION

When I was twelve, my mother explained homosexuality: Remember those two drunk men you saw on Christopher. You said they were up against one another, fighting. They were not fighting. They were homosexuals.

 

2. DON’T TELL

 

I was a school child

Don’t tell  jobs and work.

not even your best friend

 

and if you ask why,

there is something wrong with you.

 

Don’t tell about, you know.

 

Someone could use it against

 

We could be eaten alive.

 

 

 

3. FILL IN THE BLANKS

Another piece of instruction about homosexuality and lesbianism from my mother:

I was in late high school or early college. She told me about The Well of Loneliness. She said it was about lesbians. She said it was about unrequited love. She said in the end the main character kills herself.  She said it was a good book. I never read it.

 

4. HIGH SCHOOL FOLLIES

We were painting at our easels, the room redolent of oil paints and turpentine. Nancy went to wash out her brushes and the classmate at the next easel said, “She and Lisette were kissing at the party last Saturday.”

“Siciliano?” as if there were more than one Lisette.

Another easel said, “They were making out.”

The easel next to me said, “It was disgusting.”

 

Thursday. We sat in a horse shoe, working on contour drawings. The door opened. Harry of course. Late of course. People sniggered, yes, actually sniggered, as usual when Harry appeared. He was a pimply sixteen year old with a shock of hair as red as an abrasion, and he wore a soft green crew neck sweater. Everyone knew, if you wore green on Thursday, you were queer and anyway Harry had never made any attempt to conceal his lisp or muscle up on his wrist. He entered classrooms alone. He ate alone in the lunchroom. Some times, he wore a bow tie. I had heard he lived on The East Side, which in Manhattan tended to mean money, tended to mean WASP.

He pulled out his pencil case and set to work. Maybe it didn’t help that he was unskillful and timid as an artist.

“Faggot,” someone said, not too quietly, but below the teachers’ radar. Maybe we wouldn’t have treated him any better if he’d been an artistic genius. It was the late 50s. Though some of our classmates were openly funny, they were otherwise conformist. No one stepped forward to advocate for him. We left him alone as if he were poison because he was flagrant and defenseless and alone.

 

There was the gym teacher, tall, lithe, with sleek dark hair, gold skin, olive dark eyes. She was a “Mrs.,” but she and another woman teacher were always together and I think maybe someone had seen them kissing or someone had said they had seen them.

There was my classmate Joaqin, tall thin, his shoulders bony, his eyes dark and haunted. It was the era of the female model Twiggy. Joaquin’s art was wispy, more line and inference than the abstract painted blocks and buxom Matisse imitations so many of us produced.

At the senior varsity show, Joaquin brought down the house when he appeared as the popular gym teacher. He did it so convincingly, piling cliche upon cliche. In those days, to declare you were queer, you flamed and ignited the imaginations, hopes, and fears, of the rest of us in our shocking pink turtlenecks and button down shirts and denim skirts and bohemian black tights. Joaquin and Barry, Nancy and Lisette: the faggots burning among us chicken shits, most of us “liberals,” but afraid to step up.

 

5. COLLEGE

I was at Barnard College when two women were expelled. Two Columbia “men” had scanned the windows of the Barnard dorm with a telescope and seen the two women “in bed together.” The men talked about it in The West End Bar and were overheard. The two women were gone, expelled, sent home. There was no outcry. No one came forward and said, “These are my friends. This is wrong,” or, as was the case for me, “I didn’t know these two, but this is wrong.” The fear of being tainted by association? The fear of retaliation by the college? In this era, a Barnard classmate, not someone I knew, was reportedly sent home. She had brought her horse with her to college and stabled it near Central Park. The college heard that she was dating a groom, or perhaps he was a riding instructor. Quel horreur. Shades of Lady Chatterly. Acting in loco parentis, the college expelled her( and, I assume, her horse).

From at least high school forward, I was schooled: homosexuality was something vague and awful, despite the popular gym teacher and Joaquin’s open and affectionate parody. Its consequence could be life-destroying, even when the particulars of what homosexuality might actually be, were vague in most of our minds. It wasn’t simply high school pecking order and a college’s exercise of power. I was a child of the McCarthy era. I knew that adults had lost their livelihoods and their reputations, never to be regained, simply because it had been alleged that someone was, you know, fill in the blank.

 

My god-mother grew up in vaudeville, where her father was a star. He sang and danced with a coquettish young woman from France. The French singer spoke no English, so my teenage godmother was charged with teaching the singer English. They remained inseparable, one might say bosom (somehow the theatrical secrecy, both fraught and silly, from a distance lends itself to amusement), friends from my godmother’s adolescence, through her many-decades marriage, until the singer’s death in the 1950s. I remember a Christmas when I was in early elementary school when the singer gave me a child’s sewing machine and I remember the magnetism of her small, elegant person, the choreographed strands of black bangs over the dark saucer eyes, the pearls gleaming at ears and on her hand. The entire apartment, and especially my godmother who usually paid great attention to my sister and me, was focused on the singer.

I remember my godmother standing in the hospital room where my mother was dying, although, that death, too, was unspoken. The setting sun from the Hudson was enameling in gold and red the banks of apartment windows facing us. My godmother said, “The night She died. I knew.” And I, by then a declared and “practicing” lesbian, knew whom she meant.

A decade or so later, I spent a week at my god parents’ apartment in New York City. My Godfather was out of town. He asked me to come up from West Virginia to be with my godmother who was now legally blind. It was the week I ate duck for the first time, sitting over trays in the very French living room which was two steps down from the small platform which was their dining room, outside the minute kitchen where you could stand in one spot and simply twirl around to go from sink to fridge to counter to window to stove and arrive back at the sink without ever taking a step.

After dinner one night, maybe that dinner of Chinese duck, my godmother began to of her mid-teens years, around WW I. She had a friend, a girl her own age and they were very close, inseparable in fact, in their bourgeois childhoods on the West Side of Manhattan. I had known this girl’s name (so talented, so gentle, so fine) from my mother, but never in connection with my godmother. I, the West Virginia outlier, the out but quite ordinary school-teaching lesbian in the room, the mother of two, pricked up my ears. A younger girl, maybe an eleven year old, entered the picture. This younger girl was star struck by my godmother’s friend. This younger girl was my mother, my god mother told me, turning to me with her unfocussed eyes swimming in her lenses. And then the girl, the object of both my mother’s and my godmother’s affection, caught diphtheria and died. My godmother sighed and said no more.

 

Both my mothers, knowing I lived as a lesbian with a woman in West Virginia, never said a word to me. By 1979, both had died.


II. WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD? 

LESBIANS ASSAULTED AND/OR KILLED FOR BEING LESBIANS

 

To counter this history of concealments, I had in mind to finish with an inspirational list of queer women, including my mothers. I began by listing a few writers and musicians like Bricktop, figures like Gladys Bentley, but wasn’t satisfied.

I googled, lesbians assaulted and/or killed for being lesbians. This was not research. This was a ten second button push and yet, here they are,  important and human members of our community: people brutalized for who they are. We’ve not come far from that classroom of adolescents frightened by Harry’s undeniable queerness. I want to un-deny and embrace lesbians assaulted and/or killed….

An overwhelming number of people on this list are trans women, and/or  African American trans women.

Just one hit. All these names. You know there are uncounted more.

 

Eudy Simelane, Rebecca Wight, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, Julianne Williams and Lollie Winans, Gwen Araujo, Saskia Gunn, Brandon Teena, Chanelle Pickett, Fred Martinez, Nizah Morris, Terrianne Summers, Nireah Johnson, Emonie Spaulding, Ruby Ordenana, Stacey Brown, Ebony Whitaker, Duanna Johnson, Ashley Sweeney, Sanesha Stewart,  Angela Zapata, Nahkia Williams, Ruby Molina, Lateisha Green, Tayzia Elzey, Caprice Curry, Patti Hammond Shaw, Dee Green, Maria Malina Quails, Myra Chanel Ical, Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar, Toni Alston, Dana A. “Chanel” Larkin, Sandy Woulard, Victoria Carmen White, Stacey Blahnik Lee,  Chrissie Bate, – Chrissy Lee Polis,  Rosita Hernandez, CeCe McDonald, Lashai Mclea, Camila GuzmanShelley Hilliard, Cassidy Nathan Vickers, Dee Dee Pearson, Githe Goines, Crain Conaway, JaParker “Deoni” Jones, Coko Williams, Paige Clay, Brandy Martell, Mollie Olgin, 19 years old, and her girlfriend, Kristene Chapa, Tracy Johnson, Tiffany Gooden, Kendall Hampton, Deja Jones, Kyra Cordova, Janette Tovar, Sondra Scarber,  Sasha Fleischman,

 

I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment, without framing. I was hoping this way to approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments are meaningless without context: the grid and grids of power within which I learned. An end question: how do we change the grid of power.

 

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

 

I.

My Jewish mother, and I suppose my Episcopalian father, named me “Faith,” because giving birth to a Jewish child during World War II, or, as my mother called it The War Against Hitler, was an act of faith.

I disliked my name because it was hard for a small child, like my toddler sister, to pronounce. My sister called me “Thaif.” My mother would sit her down. “Say Faith,” my mother would pronounce, emphasizing the F and the TH  with a hiss and an exaggerated pursing of her lips. My sister, she of the dark, dark, eyes would solemnly eye my mother, shape her babyish mouth to mimic my mother and pronounce, “Thaif.” When I entered school in the late 1940s, there were no other children named Faith, not in my class, not in the entire school, not until eight years later when there was one other Faith in my high school.

When I moved into the larger world, people often pronounced the name Faye. The people who did this tended to be Jewish. My mother insisted I must correct people. Her public insistence (though it was my name — not hers ) that I be called by the name she had given me horrified me.

It was in high school that I began to hear: “Faith is not a Jewish name.”

People said “Faith, Hope, and Charity — that’s Christian.”

“It is not. It’s universal,” my mother would sputter.

There were many reasons that I grew up feeling not Jewish enough; my name was one of them.

 

II.

When I was GROWING UP, this was my maternal family constellation:

  • my household of two mothers, my sister, and me on Jane Street, on the western edge of Greenwich Village
  • my maternal grandmother a ten minute walk from our apartment, she in a somewhat grand apartment building on Seventh Avenue between 13th and 14th streets
  • my mother’s brother Bob and his wife, Elaine in what my mother called Jersey

 

The last time my grandmother, in her late 70s or early 80s, spent a weekend in Jersey with my uncle Bob and aunt Elaine, she and Elaine got into it. Grandma Spellman was talking about our family in Europe. Some had been button merchants, with branches in many countries; in some countries although Jews were disfranchised, they were required to serve in the military. When a boy was called for military service, he was moved to a branch of button merchants in another country. Grandma Spellman’s version of our family’s line was that in addition to the Dutch/Spanish/British connection on her husband’s side, her family was German. All German, nothing but German. My Aunt Elaine insisted she, Elaine, knew Grandma had Polish blood and Grandma flew into a rage. Both women did. I think my uncle had to immediately drive his mother and her ruffled feathers back to her apartment on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I’m not sure my aunt and grandmother ever made up, before my grandmother’s death when she was 82.

Elaine had an irreverent and acerbic way about her. My sister and I considered ourselves Jewish, though we knew almost nothing and were taught almost nothing by our humanist mother to help us be Jews. I used to hold this against my mother, but now realize that she born in 1909, the baby of four children, born to prosperous and assimilated Jews who attended Temple Emmanuel — in effect a Jewish cathedral on upper Fifth Avenue —was of a generation of Jewish girls who knew little about their Judaism). When my sister and I were in elementary school, our Aunt Elaine called us The Heathens, or The Little Pagans. She herself had been born Jewish. She did this openly in front of us and our uncle and our mother. She did it with a smile and people took it with a smile. My sister and I stilled and remained silent.

 

 

III.

Not long after we returned from living in Haiti for a year, a year of being singular white children in a Black countryside, my mothers decided we would attend services. My mother by affection had a reproduction of a Marc Chagall rabbi in her bedroom. At eight or nine years old, this was Judaism to me. We went to an orthodox synagogue on one of those Greenwich Village streets that cross like creeks from the diagonal of West Fourth to the diagonal of Bleecker and beyond to the roaring trucks of cobbled Hudson Street. I will never forget the door sucking open and the murmur of male voices inside. The oddity of our foursome standing in the entry way: an African American woman, a semitic woman, and two girl children — all four with uncovered heads. Outsiders. I remember no visible women. Places were made for us and we sat, engulfed in chants more unfamiliar than the drums of Haiti, awash in a language we could not untangle, dying for the mortification to be over.

 

 

IV.

In seventh or eighth grade my sister and I cajoled our mother into attending The Brotherhood Synagogue, a congregation around the corner from my grandmother’s apartment. The synagogue shared a sanctuary with a Christian denomination. I remember little about this experience except that I didn’t fit in, that my mother was restive during the Friday evening services, and that Hebrew School was very difficult. I was a nerdy little whiz student in elementary school, but could not discern the difference between the various Hebrew letters. I couldn’t. I would struggle in front of the other, glib students, but could not recognize more than a letter or two. Years later, this humbling experience gave me some empathy for my students with learning disabilities. My mother declared she would never return to the synagogue after the rabbi gave a sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. It did not matter one whit to her that Isaac was not actually sacrificed. Her quarrel was with a god who would ask such a sacrifice and with a rabbi and his religion which would perpetuate the story as an exemplary piece of wisdom.

 

 

V.

I went to the hotel room, one of those old and elite hotels on Fifth Avenue near 59th street. I was 17 years old and wearing my heather college admission interview suit and the cheap silk blouse my mother and I had found on a sale table at Macy’s. I had rarely been in a hotel, never by myself. Oberlin was not my first choice, but it was my only out of town choice. I had chosen it because Oberlin was a good school and I liked that it had played a role in the Underground railroad and had, I thought, been the first U.S. college to admit Black students.

When I knocked, the recruiter opened the door. He wore a suit, let’s say a three piece suit. He had pulled the small table-like desk away from the wall and set it in the middle of the room. He motioned for me to sit on one side and he sat facing me. He was tall. I was aware of his starched shirt and, disconcertingly, of the tiled bathroom within arm’s reach.

There must have been chit chat. Maybe I even revealed my admiration for the college’s early integration. Actually, he informed me, Oberlin had not been the first. Polite, I swallowed.

He said, “Miss Holsaert,” and squared off the pages in the folder before him, my papers, my grades, my essay, my application, the references. “Miss Holsaert,” he said, “You are eminently qualified to attend Oberlin, but I must inform you that Oberlin has a Jewish quota and it is unlikely that we will admit you.”

 

 

VI.

1962. Mass meeting in Albany, Georgia. The congregation is passionate and participatory and, of course, Black. I had never heard such solemn, chanted and improvised singing, hundreds of voices flowing inexorably over and under and around one another in deep, harmonious currents. Though it was late September, when NYC would have been cool in the evening, in Albany we were sweaty as well as uplifted.

As we filed out into the warm night, a woman from the congregation asked me, “Where are you from, child?”

I said New York. She asked and so I answered, “Jewish.”

She said, “Oh, you are one of the Hebrew children.”

 

 

WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD?

 

But then:

 

WITH LOVE *

 

you can hear her heart

she and her classmates

hearts under

tank tops and camis

obey their parents

whose history should but

calls them Never Again

to cone nose bombs

 

the children know their job

select their crayons with pointed tips

each girl two pert pig tails brush

sometimes at noon they might whisper

their parents’ terrible stories

their cousin who and the uncle

1940s shadow

 

where do the dead go?

 

the strange one

she is too much or too little Jew

her parents speak to the Arab bookseller

she reads books which are too old

the strange one with resolve

takes up her crayon

those Arab children will have mamas and bubbes

cooking and rousing and berating

 

hear her heart beat

urging her to take her place

but urging her to put down the crayon and walk away

by the bomb, her bomb, that is shaped like a crayon

a piece of her has walked away

and a piece of her has stayed

she writes on the grit metal jacket of her bomb

with the wax of her crayon,

writes her namethe name of the Great Grandma who died at Auschwitz

she signs in manuscript, with love.

 

* having seen a photo of Israeli school children signing missiles to be fired into Lebanon

 

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 http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/modules-menu/community-organizing/item/57-kai-barrow

 

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!

[reprise.]

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YA0CKj2cncg

 

 

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.

TO MY READER

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):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfrkrQX0S48

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 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]

not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive

but                        snapshots

soldier_a_poets_childhood

Week I. FIGHTING WAS A REALLY GOOD WAY TO LIVE

Week day mornings I have been reading aloud to myself. I rise in the dark, eat a quick breakfast and begin: tai chi, the cat sometimes twining through my legs, while water heats for coffee. I go upstairs to my study. I sip my coffee and read aloud.

First, when it was still summer, there was June Jordan’s Soldier, a Poet’s Childhood.

In what fleeting but unimaginably long seconds have I felt my existence, my life breath, at stake? How have I imagined I could defend myself? Where can I find poetry in those seconds so close to death?

Must a poet be fierce? Can I even imagine June Jordan’s ferociousness?

* * * * *

To me, Joe Louis was like the Bible, except Joe Louis was alive.

And fighting was a really good way to live.

There was nothing wrong about it.

Joe Louis made that obvious.
[June Jordan, Soldier, a Poet’s Childhood]

New York City, the ‘40s. Becoming a soldier in preparation for becoming a poet. A musical composition, with the mother and the father as two melodies. She is a toddler, but her father has begun to train her to be a soldier, a little man. Her mother nurtures. JJ as a very young child on the grassy verge outside their projects apartment above the East River; at the same time her father enters her bedroom in the middle of the night to beat her.

Later, two ocean memories are braided: the father takes six year old June deep sea fishing. Preparing the gear, the warnings of danger which could result in the small child’s drowning, the series of 3AM bus rides, boarding the boat with many men. In contrast preparations for a day at the beach, her mother turning and turning in the kitchen as she bakes cake and cupcakes, fries chicken, mixes up potato salad, the beauty of JJ’s mother’s laughter. At the beach, JJ is dashed into the waves by her father, terrified, then rescued by her mother, who carries her back to the umbrella-shaded blanket to feed her cupcakes and chicken and deviled eggs in no particular order and then JJ wanting to be dashed back into the ocean.

At age 7, JJ placed a knife  under her pillow, ready to kill her father if he touched her.

The father, Granville, whacks a grapefruit in half with a machete. Standing, he eats the grapefruit, squeezing the last juice down his throat.

The father announces JJ will attend a prep school and the mother protests that the girl is just a child and that she must be with “Her own people, Granville, her own people.” The prose fragments into poetry, perhaps unable to deal sequentially and logically with the father’s plan to free JJ from what he sees as a cage: “No, Millie, it’s a cage: a cage!” The mother says, “You gwine make her afraid to be sheself!/You gwine make her hate you, Granville…/if you don’ kill her first/with you damn daydreams…”

And he slaps the mother.

And the child says,

No, Mommy. Why?
Yes, Mommy, no.

If you are a child, and your parents, each of whom loves you, are at war about your very nature, about what can mean life or death for you, at war about from what you must be freed: where do you, that child, find your grounding?

****
June Jordan was not only trained and beaten and sent into a lonely and alien world when she was very young. There were also the near-miraculous moments of safety, love, permission to grow into her own greatness, and awe. Moments when the girl child bursts with exuberance and brilliance:

The first time my father took me to a symphony orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, it was dark. I was so excited to be up and out of the house at night! I was stunned by so many grown-up people up and outside in the dark. I just couldn’t get over it! Were they all going to the concert? What was about to happen?

And was that was that was that the moon?

Oh, I was so excited! What was going to happen?

My father kept saying, “You’ll see! You’ll see!”

And finally we got there and it was very very crowded and I was afraid I would lose my father but I didn’t and we got to our seats and I couldn’t see anything if I sat down so I stood up and then the concert started and I was looking at all these different men wearing black and white and playing different instruments together and I was about to explode with so many questions because I couldn’t hear the music because the questions crashed around so loud inside my head but my father put his finger to his lips so I’d keep silent and after a while I crawled into his lap and fell asleep.
[June Jordan, Soldier: a Poet’s Childhood]

The words of a child who before sleep placed a knife under her pillow.