gonna make my hair fall
worryin if yo life
still on dis side
us been three day(s)
lookin fo u
u in herr
hey-zeus: dunno y
whatchu had me fo
mudda: my God!!!!!
i aint no magician
u aint gotta tell me
what thou art
i know who
u come from
u came outta Me
i say we need wine
& de angel already tol(d) me
how u gotta do
ax yo daddy
fo summa dat joo-joo
& see if him work(s)
like him say
at table | after cross
u aint tell me
him wud bleed
cabin in sky
dey kill(t) u
folk wud snatch
life from mudda(s)
& soil de mudda(s)
in dey own crimson
& de mudda(s) wud
tell dem no
in front of my baby(s)
dey wud take de mudda(s)
& de baby(s) too
& de men who knew
what yo face look(d) like
in de dark
enuf to kiss it
dontchu know how many
commere wif yo name
in dey throat
de one time
u open(d) de sky
& u ax(d) dat one
y him yo electric chair
dontchu remember how
u change(d) him name
& way him sword flew
open de sky
& snatch de evil
from dey palm(s)
turn deez muddafukka(s) paul
turn dem all
& when him come mandingo buc(k)
all greasy & blue in de hush
of her befo her give him a piece
of summa dat blow
a min(d) | her tell him
some man rape(d)
some woman her kin to
somewhere one day
& ran saffron
up & down
her | her tell him
her blk not almos(t)
white | her tell him
dem be razor(s) not roller(s)
curlin her hair
her tell him her aint a prize
wif a pussy
her tell him
her pussy de prize
her tell him
her need him to be
a winner | her tell him
him has no option
as far as i be concern(d)
dem n’em made jee-sus
de 1st transracial mudda- fukka | ever
Introduction by Poetry Editor Nathan McClain:
At our 20th annual Cave Canem Retreat last week, I learned that a camera, no matter how good a camera, is mechanical. This sounds like a simple statement, I know, but what it means is that a camera doesn’t see what you see; a camera only sees what’s in front of it. A “good shot” isn’t on account of owning a good camera. Our role, as poet and/or photographer, is not only learning to “see,” but also learning to frame what you “see” (so the camera also sees). This practice requires a fundamental understanding of image which, in either a photograph or a poem, is, or should be, our primary focus. “Every poem is essentially an image” and, according to Chris Abani (who I’ll paraphrase in great detail here), who recently sat with me and discussed photography, and image in particular, “every image [as, I hope, you’ll see] is composed of three parts: a striking visual image (which occupies the focal point), movement (which creates depth of field) and sound.” (In a photograph, sound is always implied because you can’t hear it). Understand that when Abani references a photograph, he is differentiating between a “photograph” and a “snapshot” to which, in our current dispensation, we are constantly exposed. Hello, Snapchat. Hello, Instagram. A “snapshot” is an image that has no connection to us beyond the representation of the moment; it holds nothing beyond the materials of its composition. It’s anecdotal. A “photograph,” conversely, is never a representation of life, as that would cause the image to be static, flat. It’s an image that reveals the limits of its individual material components and reaches beyond the frame. The photograph, the poem, is about invoking presence. The self is (and should be) implicated. We try to find apertures which are closed, so we can open them. This creates empathy because, to paraphrase Baldwin, “your suffering means something only inasmuch as someone else can connect their suffering to yours.” Our trauma creates an aperture for someone else’s trauma.
Abani was kind enough to provide us with a small photo essay. Originally, when I considered the photo essay, I thought “argument,” but it’s really a conversation. Persuasion (or rhetoric) functions in that it limits the frame for you. Framing, or positioning, conveys intent. When a photo essay is built, one whittles down until the image is found, and then images that create tension with other images. Enough narrative is provided to engage a viewer, but enough lyric space is left so other narrative and emotional possibilities are available for the image. A viewer leans into it…
Fair warning, I am a tatterdemalion.
As in all meditations around photographs, words must take second place to the image, which should hold all the profundity, as words are mere facsimiles of the actual. Nonetheless.
Women, embodied and alive resist inscription. Not in the sense of striving toward or against, but rather in the sense of presence: the state of being present, a fact of body and all that derives from it. Women ARE.
The masculine gaze attempts to temper women to desire, lust, hunger, and a need that makes men the center of the world. But women can’t be overwritten easily because we cannot overwrite what IS.
British sculptor Antony Gormely thinks of the human body as a “place of habitation.” He makes art by using his body, or the bodies of those who live in the areas his work will be shown. This art is a direct mold of their bodies, I think, in hope of locating how we inhabit bodies, since once the sculpture goes into the world, the audience inhabits them. This kind of site-specific installation is simultaneously mobile and resists easy inscription in this way.
The masculine drive to shape women’s bodies to desire and need, one that can be magically harnessed to any object in order to magnify its appeal, requires an evacuation first. This may seem counter-intuitive but it isn’t – to make a woman with large breasts hypersexual, or to make blonde hair signify stupidity, or to make glasses signify smartness is to transform women into mannequins, to remove the self. And since this is impossible the fabrication begins on the outside, a way of shaping perception such that even the self inhabiting the body questions her own understanding of it.
Seeing this window installation in LA I was drawn to the mannequins. Since the conceit was the future, it saddened me to see that even in the future, even in a post-apocalyptic world, women are still positioned within the masculine gaze. The reflected consumer products, one of them a cell phone company logo lodged firmly in one mannequin’s throat, seemed to indicate a silence. The skulls, usually associated with hunters and masculine prowess when mounted, were further signs of inscription. And yet, there is something about these mannequins that made me think of Antony Gormely and I realized that what had happened here, by a curious trick of the light, of seeing, was that I was compelled to seek habitation in these bodies, to find myself in them. There was something in their positioning that invoked their presence, the fact of them, the possibility of them, and the negation of the act of patriarchy.
But the images must speak for themselves. I am, in this regard a tatterdemalion, which is to say you must not take my word for it. I am after all, a man.
from FWR Poetry Editor Nathan McClain:
While at Cave Canem, I had the opportunity to chat with, and interview, poet and photographer Rachel Eliza Griffiths on the functionality and nature of photography and, more specifically, how aspects of the gaze and engagement contribute to a photo’s overall work. Her responses were far too wonderful and in-depth to distill, so I’ve provided Rachel Eliza’s responses, in their entirety, for your perusal. Rachel Eliza, too, provided us with a photo essay, which I’ve embedded in her response, as I sense the two are in conversation.
A poem, or a photograph, after it leaves you, is a virus that exists in the world. It replicates itself and, despite its framing, it cannot be contained. My hope is that Rachel Eliza’s photos and responses affect, or maybe more so infect, you…
NM: How would you say the photograph directs the gaze in a way the poem may not?
REG: I want to be careful to not make any sweeping statements, as your questions are so interesting and fluid to me. I’ll think of these questions for years. I admit that I feel the photographer in me resisting my efforts to verbalize or theorize the parts of me where my visual alphabet works in terms of imagination and politics. There is obviously as much nuance within photography and photographers as there is amongst poets and the tools/language they employ to shape, light, and to shadow their work. For me, there are shared spaces between imagery and vocabulary and other spaces where neither can help, witness, direct, or translate the other.
The presence of tension and intuition, whether in a poem or photograph, is critical for me in terms of process. When I think of process, I think of my body and of its systems. How I experience my body, as I am writing, is distinct from the sensations I experience when I’m using my camera. For both, landscape – where I am and with whom and where, the specific geography – becomes literal, internal, spectral, exterior. I don’t resist these contradictions. I get away from squares, unless they are pages or viewfinders. For a while, all shapes are doors, stairs, and windows. After photographing, I feel my work in my muscles, my back, hips, and arms. They’re sore. When I write I have to remember my body. I look up and hours may have passed without me even getting up for a glass of water.
In a photograph, I have to meet myself as an “I” in ways that I’m unable to articulate in a poem. But I don’t see this as a failure. The mood or space where tension exists comes from the same vulnerability, the same power. In a poem the “I” is working at something, so interior, that the photograph can barely perceive it, much less reveal it in its entirety to my own gaze.
For example, many of my self-portraits included here incorporate blurring. If I take an image of myself and I seem too still in it I feel as if I’m dead somehow. I get freaked out. Blurring helps me see how spiritual I am and reminds of how the past, present, and future can function in a two-dimensional portrait of one’s self. I don’t necessarily need narrative but I often like to sense movement in the environment, which is also living and moving.
When I’m looking at myself I’m hoping for discovery. I accept the outside and reject the outside. I accept the inside and reject the inside. I use language and I subvert language. Texture, color, light, shadow, frame/composition, sound, absence, voices, and faces become surrogates for what I cannot say. Recently I began to incorporate my body in photographs. That space is difficult to metastasize, or offer in my poems because of how freighted and unstable language can be. I think of alchemy, authority and permission, and how those relate to photographers and to poets. Sometimes I think of the gaze and I think about beauty and desire and violence. I think about how a poem about my body might be received if it were placed next to an image of my body. I try to let the work say it because the work knows it better and more honestly than grammar. People will say a photograph does not lie but, of course, photographs lie too.
But photographs and poems also become glyphs – they’re 2D. I’m not. I have to push at them, break them, to give them bones and flaws and flesh that can outlive me. There is a relationship that must happen immediately, structurally, thematically, and psychologically between the poet and the reader. Mortality happens between the poet and reader. The photograph itself happens immediately and then, if the photograph is strong enough, it will reverberate and live, sometimes hidden for years, inside of the gaze where it was first experienced.
Time in a photograph also splices and freezes an experience in a way that I feel a strong poem can also transform its reader. For example, consider the past and the future. I don’t know if the present tense exists in photographs but it does, often, in poems. When I invoke the past or the future in a poem I don’t see it with the same lifespan a photograph holds. Photographers can photograph or intuit the future but the implication of doing that almost goes against the common intention of most images, which are snapshots, which is to convey what Reality is/was like. With the “likeness” being accurate enough to the real. Being ‘accurate’ in a poem has little value or meaning unless it is part of the poem’s truth. It is easier for us to accept a photograph or dismiss it as, ‘that’s not real’ in a way that does not happen easily in a strong poem. Poems make us believe in ways that photographs aren’t necessarily concerned with – and this calls into light the places where the air thins between these ideas.
Our world is so visually conscious of itself. While certain types of cropping or manipulation, lack of credit, laws of fair use, etc. in a photograph can be egregious sites of outrage, manipulation in a photograph is usually not as averse to our reaction to feeling manipulated by a poet. Is there more at stake when we, in our roles as “readers”, are manipulated?
Most of the time we assume that the photograph we are seeing has been revised, edited. And a photographer is more likely to have a photograph plagiarized or appropriated (without much consequence) than a poem. Some photographers are okay with this because of how democracy, amongst photography, works in its contemporary republic. Most people would never quote or use a poet’s work without providing some attribution or credit. But photographers expect this and as such, there are photographers who make their living by selling ‘stock’ images. ‘Stock poetry’, wherever it appears, is usually derided. As viewers, we are more likely to be impressed and admire a skilled photographer’s manipulation of an image than we might necessarily be if we were to witness a certain type of cleverness or verbal pyrotechnics in a poet’s toolbox. We might be dismissive of that poet for being ‘experimental’ or ‘too much’ or find such dazzling attempts as distractions from the work itself.
There’s The Gaze too. I don’t have enough space to go into that! But reciprocity is part of this conversation. We must speak of what is private and public within the context of the gaze. What is authorized. What is banned. What is legislated and outlawed. Do we judge the photographer for immorality or ethical trespass in the same way we might apply such concepts to a poem or a poet? When a photographer has the opportunity to ‘take the shot’ (always this hyper-aggressive vocabulary of taking, shooting, capturing), what is at stake? What is at stake for a poet who gives voice to those who cannot speak? What is at stake for a photographer, who looks, makes visible the necessary moment, when the world will not see or would not see otherwise? What is at stake when the poet executes that identical gesture? How do we compare the notion of silence and speech when it occurs in either poem or photograph?
Depending on who is looking, the photographer is as much the object and subject as the production of the final image. For example, consider celebrity photographers whose celebrity will sometimes be noted and lauded before any actual attention is given to the work. I believe that this happens, but a bit differently, with poets. The notion of a photographer as ‘author’ can be as expansive as the poet’s task. But there are other elements to examine for both poet and photographer including accountability, anonymity, privilege, intention, politics, ethics, and of course, imagination. Again, it depends on the type of photographer. War photographers need different tools than underwater photographers or wedding photographers. I don’t have any judgment about this. I believe it’s about the way you feed your eyes, what you must look at and what you need to see and every wound of gray in between.
NM: Is there a way in which we engage with a photo that we do not with a poem?
REG: There are many ways! I think about this all of the time so I don’t have a static answer. We engage poems differently, even amongst ourselves, as readers of poetry. We assign value (and outrage) in dynamic terms when it comes to photography in ways we might not when we are reading. We engage photographs differently when they appear in museums, advertisements, family albums, or social media. Many of us are curating various narratives and lifelines with our ‘smart’ devices. There is also a global coherence that is happening now, irreversibly, because of technology. This is complicated, revolutionary, amazing, and dangerous.
If I read a poem written in English it possesses a distinct fluency because my first language is English. In which language(s) do we experience photographs? Many of my favorite photographers are not American. But how can you look at photograph and immediately discern its author’s identity or where that photographer is from? How does the concept of universality relate to a photograph beyond the image itself and for its own sake?
With poems, it’s interesting. If I’m reading a poem that was originally written in French, I’m likely to look at several translations or ask friends for suggestions for the most informed version. I’ll be looking for the best version, the closest version. I have to do more work because I want to experience the language of the poem as closely to its original text as possible. All translations are not equal but how would that notion manifest in photography?
Intimacy is also something I often think about in relationship to both poetry and photography. The intimacy I might share in a photograph is neither identical nor lateral to the intimacy I share in a poem. Both forms engage different threads of the gaze. These forms are often contradictory in relation to the acceptance or rejection of the gaze. The shapes of the gaze in either medium are relative to my content and intention. For me, any attempt to answer this question only provokes questions. Who is the We? How do we, as individuals and public citizens, understand, maintain, and define ‘literacy’? Personally, I’ve had numerous experiences where there is concerned.
Photography’s functions are not identical to poetry’s processes and forms. Perhaps poetry and photography are fraternal twins. If I look at a photographer’s work my dialogue with that work happens in a matter of seconds. I find an opening, a narrative (however fragmented or fractured), a visual seduction or rhythm, an emotion that is persistent. Visceral. I find what fails in its complete articulation to be verbal or knowable.
n. A small fishing boat equipped with several 1,000-watt light bulbs hung from aluminum shades to attract squid to commercial fishing grounds.
Jesse isn’t really a pirate, but the Coast Guard thinks so when he calls to say he found a body. It doesn’t matter that she’s still alive, so cold she stopped shivering, blue fat of her naked body waxy and blooming red patches where his hands grabbed and hauled her from the water. He stands over her with a filet knife, slowly honing the blade as he waits for Search and Rescue. The glassy eyes of a dead tuna stare up from the galley counter. At dusk, Jesse flicks on the squid lights. When the uniforms arrive, they question Jesse, but never tell him who she is. Taking her away, the Lifeboat’s white wake is brilliant in the night. Days later, Jesse reads the story of an obese woman slipping out of bed at Johnson Memorial. She shed a hospital issued flannel gown and left nothing more, not even a whisper of footprints on the white tile floor. Jesse lights up a mass of squid and imagines her bare bottom shining under the moon as she waltzed herself into the slate-gray ocean and floated away. He knows how she must have longed for the cradling dark. He watches ruddy bodies pulse in the artificial bright, the net dropping around them like a curtain.
Shuttles flick through diamond-shaped windows.
Just fingers flash, bending the twine in stair steps up and down cut edges.
Their pockets full of hooks and flagging tape, men mend the net.
Jim recalls branding cattle as a kid in North Dakota, winter cold just lifted,
calves struggling in mud before the prairie bloomed, withered in summer heat.
Playing cowboy now, he says he shot coyotes and Indians off his dad’s land.
Face deadly straight, you only know he’s lying when his fingers stutter,
stick, the tiny knot coming up slack. Just one unraveled compromises the delicate
lift and pull of meshes under stress. I’ve seen whole seams split from end to end.
He knows love knots pull tighter under pressure, stronger than the lines used to tie them.
He starts talking about his grandmother with Alzheimer’s. Each winter she thinks
every day for a week is Christmas. Last year she fell in two feet of snow.
Feeding the horses, hay in her hands, the wind at ten below, she lay crying
until Jim’s grandfather found her. She didn’t recognize him,
but knew love when it grabbed her, pushing back the terror.
Jim joins two lines with overhand knots, sliding them one on top of the other,
pulling for tension. Sometimes the line snaps in his swollen fingers. His hands ache.
He cracks his knuckles, asks the boys if they’re ready for a beer, remembering his first.
At fifteen he drank Rainier, bittersweet scent biting his nose while he sipped,
making him crave pancakes all night. He didn’t know why until he remembered hunting
trips when he was five and six, Brown Betty, the old flat top stove at his uncle’s cabin.
Uncle Joe would tinker the diesel flame into smothering heat, sizzle of bacon
while Jim’s dad poured Hamm’s in the pancake batter, saying, Our little secret.
Holding a burnt handled spatula, he’d flip white beer cakes mid-air.
Outside the web locker, Jim’s crew chuckles, calls it a day, each popping a beer tab.
At home their fingers twitch all night, tie imaginary hitches, sheet bends,
loop knots, a bowline on a bight. Jim dreams of the whole net flexing,
all the pearl-sized knots shrunk and snug, rippling in the current.
The Luthier’s mother’s mouth’s openness
The Luthier’s mother’s mouth’s openness, her hands’ finger’s
tremblings, her red hair’s fires’ warnings. It’s what you saw if you
were making your last visit to her ever. You were the Luthier’s
mother’s Possession when you walked into her son’s guitars’
home, in which son and mother also lived together in one room.
Inside their home’s heart’s sounds: the tub’s faucet’s dripping’s
splashings and the refrigerator’s coils’ hymning humming and the
clock’s hands’ frettings and the floorboards’ one warped
floorboard’s creaking. It felt like everything you heard was also
hearing everything else, that nothing resting there fully rested.
I know all this because I lived there once with an older sister
named Bender. She was the one who saw after me. Ran away.
And no word again from her. My feet drummed the dead forest, I
heard my face in the face, and from hunger I prayed inside
the box’s light. I felt my boy’s soul displace the small body of water. I
didn’t like that they had stopped that splashing sound.
I was the Luthier’s mother’s first husband’s second child by what
people called The Widow’s Previous Marriage. The only child left, I
was an extraneous adverb when my father, the verb of the family,
died. The Luthier, who is the second son, is the Luthier’s mother’s
I, too, was a Luthier though not as skilled as he, The Luthier’s
Luthier. Call them “Sorrow’s sorrows,” the guitars I made. Call his
“Rapture’s Raptures.” He was my teacher. Twice his age, I was the
Luthier’s mother’s son’s favorite pupil. I was there to learn how to
finish dreadnaughts that would sell fast. Banking on his
reputation, I would claim that he made them.
Once there was one he named Elizabeth Cotton. It is bad luck to
name a bad guitar. It is good luck to name a good. He had never
made one better. “Liz,” he said, at the end, “this will not hurt.”
And he was gentle. “Liz,” he said, “you’re going to like this.”
He whispered into her soundhole, “Liz, baby, what is it?” and
listened for her answer. The Luthier and I never talked with the
affection resounding in the Luthier’s guitar’s conversations with
the Luthier. There is a love that is a reflection of love’s reflection.
There is a frame inside the form, there is a vice you use to force
the edges to bind. There is the floating or flying seed still in the
grain. The stars arisen, the kingdoms fallen, the green, the void;
you touch the tuning fork across the skin of the sky, snow, rain
still in the sound. Moonlight. Sun. Nests in the limbs, and in the
nests the hungering young. You loosen the vice, and you are done.
“You fixed the tub?” I asked. The Luthier’s mother answered for
him: “Fixed.” They had even taken the duct tape off the Hot and
Cold handles. (It broke my heart, that repair.) The Luthier said,
I asked if I could take her. Together, the Luthier and I put her in
I left. She went with me everywhere I went. Forty-one years ago
At dusk, as always, Bender sang to us
At dusk, as always, Bender sang to our congregation, silver hair
greasing her blouse, and silver muffling the toes of her boots.
When we were grade-school children, she and I liked duct-tape.
We liked it like you could never believe. Our favorite thing to steal
from the corner store was that silver coil. The way it ripped
across, how it stretched over. It gripped!
She stood on the white twenty-gallon empty drum, her bootheels
burning the plastic, her tempo uneven. We were a communion of
over a dozen church-bums who loved her and were frightened by
her hawk-at-the-tree-crown and hawk-on-the-glide shoulders and
head, her wings at her sides, her hands palms out, fingers curled
We once duct-taped a picture of our father, who was dying in the
Simic State Penitentiary hospital, to a globe our aunt Horror sent
whose name was actually Hortense. He clung to the deep South.
He spun fast without flying off. When it slowed down, his head did
a half-turn on his neck, then a turn back by half that. We tore the
thing apart, duct-taped the entire planet, kicked it anywhere we
wanted. Dented part of Asia and most of Antarctica. Had to re-
Bender could see me. She looked at me. Hungry, we both had
listened to the God-hype you had to swallow in order to be
allowed to eat the soup at this mission. The tables were set in the
chapel that once had a God’s-eye skylight. Through a screen of
sloppy black paint, full moonlight smudged her gaunt face and
temples, her silvery upper lip and jaw.
She sang, Hey now. Hey. That’s what I feel. How about you?
We were all sick to death from eating so much God venom. This
serpent’s voice tasted good. Her drumming bowed us lower over
our bowls, our spoons witching the broth.
When she turned nine, Bender and I duct-taped her birthday cake
– the wrong flavor and no icing – taped the candles, taped our
cousin’s bicycle handles, seat, tires, chrome fenders, who said he
was forced to come to the birthday party. We attached our
stepmother Dillo’s hands to her knees because she napped curled
up drunk, which was not birthday-appropriate we felt. For her
convenience, we taped her whipping switch, which we had taped
and broken and overtaped, to her right claw.
Bender’s voice scraped her own clogged reed:
Hey now. Hey. That’s what I feel. How about you?
Of all hours, Bender should bless ours. Of all hungers she should
solve them here.
You feel it? You feel it. You feel it too.
Our congregation lightly hammered our tables in tune with her
Sixty-one years earlier, our mother told me nothing and no one
could save my sister, that some darkness sings only darkness.
You never ask me about me, Bender said.
O, Bender, I answered my sister-sawyer who had only survived
her own self-killings because she sang.
You never ask me about me, she said again, though she knew I
was afraid to hear her answer.
When she laughed she sounded forgiving.
Need duct tape? she asked.
I had become a musician along my way. I injured and reinjured my
guitar until we both were near dead. Kicked out of the band, I
marked it SOLD but kept it, slept with it, dreamed there was room
for me in its shell.
I did. I needed some.
On November 24, 2014, my Facebook News Feed forked: all at once I was reading two wholly different kinds of perspective, like dispatches from parallel dimensions. I remember because I was laid up for days with a fever-dream flu, the kind where you pour broth down your throat while it’s still too hot because everything in your body aches for the fluid. I couldn’t sleep or work, but I could hold a laptop and click. That’s what I was doing when the grand jury announced its decision on the shooting death of Michael Brown some four months earlier.
Darren Wilson, the white police officer with some light facial bruising and a story that didn’t add up, was not indicted on murder charges. Michael Brown, the black teenager whose body lay in the street for hours, remained killed; we were just all officially meant to call it something else now.
The bifurcation of my social media stream was stark and immediate. On one side, outpourings of rage and grief, anguished and weary exchanges, posts and reposts of memes bearing Brown’s face, tagged with the gut-punching, ‘Is-this-real-life?’ hashtag #blacklivesmatter. For myself and my co-workers who teach young men of color, who have watched white cops put them in handcuffs for ‘disrespect’, very little felt larger at that moment than our terror for their safety, than the urgency of that terror. How much larger must that terror have been for their families? For the young men themselves? After all, a white cop shot a black child, and (the story goes) made enough money in donations to retire.
However, these heady emotional posts were also interspersed with ones that now seemed oddly inane. I saw photos of people’s dogs in funny hats, a recipe for Moroccan chicken, and a video tutorial for DIY (“professional quality!”) blowouts at home. I saw new haircuts and bikes and album after album of adorable children who would never need to fear for their safety from the police unless they were holding a weapon. It was almost like watching what Facebook should look like: in that parallel universe that was nearly the same as our own, but in which Ferguson was not on fire and Darren Wilson was being arraigned. “Yep, we’re all still good here, the world makes sense, check out these cats—they’re dressed like they run a Pizza Hut!”
The poetry world did something similar in the months that followed. For example, I have vivid memories of reading Danez Smith’s blazing, beautiful, sad poems: sharing them and emailing them and quoting them and being excited about them in general. For example, “Not An Elegy for Mike Brown,” which in its very first line communicates a heartsickness, a weariness:
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
It is the work of someone who does not want to have to do this work, who wishes that so many other kinds of poem were available in this moment, but who writes this one because it is necessary. It is born of the urgency of having to live in a skin you’ve been shown is a liability. It is not saying, “I will choose to confront this.” It is saying, “I must.”
One of the things that makes this poem such a difficult read is the naked hurt that travels with this imperative, the continuous acknowledgement of its subject’s general invisibility within our poetic tradition: “think: once, a white girl / was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan War. / later, up the block, Troy got shot / & that was Tuesday.” The language swings between verve and heartbreak, as when Smith demands a war to bring Michael Brown back from the dead but follows immediately with a demurral, with lowered expectations. “I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.” To locate Brown’s killing within the epic universe of The Iliad is audacious, so much so that the impact is even stronger when the poem’s speaker de-escalates the negotiations.
Frederick Seidel also wrote a poem about Ferguson: “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri.” More than mourning or disorientation, its oblique, meandering opening communicates a skittish reluctance to get political—anxiety over maybe being labeled pedantic runs through it like a tight-strung invisible thread. Rather than locate his concern too transparently in the political, he sidles up to the topic, approaching via the intellect. He writes:
A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack.
Then the zipper got stuck.
An angel flies in the window to unstick it.
A drone was monitoring all this
In real time
And it appears on a monitor on Mars,
Though of course with a relay delay.
One of the monitors at the Mars base drone station
Is carefully considering all your moves for terror output.
But not to worry. Forget about about about it.
The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.
Ferguson, Missouri isn’t mentioned until the sixth stanza, and the reader arrives there by way of Mars, Madison Avenue, the Carlyle Bar, and Indianapolis. It’s worth saying that this isn’t a bad poem, just a puzzling one, and it does reward re-reading. The line “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County” works as a fulcrum, smack in the middle, subtly and (not so subtly) altering the repeated refrains that follow it. The elegant Mad. Ave. clothes-shopper from the third stanza is transformed, now a man on fire, trailing the flames after him into the Carlyle. The polite Algerian waiter collapses in strokes and prayers.
Seidel uses this technique to demonstrate the way that even the most pedestrian (if elite) concerns and activities are sullied by systemic injustice. The poem is heavily historical, grounded in Seidel’s memories of the Civil Rights Movement; Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billie Holiday are all present. It also strives for topicality, concerning itself to the point of preoccupation with drones, monitors, terror, privacy—all humans, regardless of race, united under a surveilling eye.
So where’s the difference, and does it matter? The obvious answer would be that white poets can choose to engage this topic—the destruction of black and brown bodies at the hands of our police, cavalier, casual, largely unpunished, and seemingly ceaseless. This is one of the most insidious benefits of white privilege. When our racist great-uncles insist on ‘playing Devil’s advocate’ on Facebook, we are free to defriend. When the news is baffling and horrifying, we are free to turn our eyes elsewhere. We are free to choose whether we make this ‘our issue’; when we do make it our issue, we are free to approach it as serenely, as philosophically, as much Devil’s advocates as we like. We are free, in essence, to live on the dogs-in-hats side of the Facebook feed.
On November 25, 2014, Danez Smith wrote an “Open Letter to White Poets,” saying:
There are people I cannot reach because what I make is degraded (& why not glorified?) for its label of black art. I implore, I need you to make art, black, dark art that shines an honest light on the histories of your paler kin. I ask you to join those fighting, under the cry of “Black Lives Matter”, in whatever way you can. Research ways you can be involved in your local community, think critically about how you can use your privilege and influence, effect change; I challenge you to make art that demands the safety of me, of many of your writing siblings, of so many people walking the streets in fear of those who are charged to protect us, even of people who we hesitate at times to call our fellow Americans.
As my activist friends have been putting it, “white silence equals white consent.” I would argue for a poetics that complicates this notion, or at least one that holds white artists to a higher standard than simple acknowledgement of systemic racism. In certain instances, without forethought or empathy, white speech on these issues can be incredibly harmful. Witness Kenneth Goldsmith’s now-infamous performance piece, “The Body of Michael Brown,” a 30-minute long reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report. Goldsmith read this text (which he altered through cut-ups and remixing) beneath a massive projected image of Brown’s graduation photo. He chose to end the poem with a jarring line about Brown’s “unremarkable” genitalia. He played these choices straight, with a gravitas that could be called self-congratulatory if one were feeling uncharitable, and seemed honestly surprised at the outpouring of rage and pain that followed.
Many writers of color have deconstructed this poem, far more eloquently than I could here; I bring it up because it illustrates my point so well. White silence is unacceptable, but mere white speech is not enough. It is possible for white authors to enter the conversation in modes and styles that reify white supremacy rather than helping to dismantle it. Black and brown bodies—black and brown tragedy, misery—are not a canvas for our experimentation or philosophizing. At a certain point, Goldsmith’s reading of Michael Brown’s injuries can only look like appropriation. At a certain point, Seidel’s observation that he “wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County” only serves to remind that he is a white man in New York City.
This type of speech is easy, and it is not what we need. Rather, we need white poets to be accountable, to be honest about the power of our voices and their capacity to wound, to be aware of how far those voices carry. Claudia Rankine, quoting Judith Butler, wrote that “we suffer from the condition of being addressable.” Amiri Baraka wrote, “Let there be no love poems written / Until love can exist freely and / Cleanly.” The news continues to baffle and horrify. We need to keep our eyes peeled, our fever spiked, waiting for the poem that crashes our two different worlds—two different poetics—together until they are indistinguishable, down to the dental records. Who knows? Maybe one of us could even write it.
In this installment of “Between the Lines,” Dustin Pearson talks with Benjamin Miller about journeys through the desert, words as objects, and poetic self-interrogation.
DP: A lot of the poems in your collection share the same titles. The title in common I found most central was “Desert.” Between the appearance of the first “Desert” and the last, the speaker seems occupied with the idea of having done or doing nothing. My mind immediately associates those poems with Moses’ liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, but I struggle to draw an explicit connection considering the different circumstances by which the two journeys are provoked. How do you imagine the connection, if any?
BM: I did put that title there with a biblical text in mind, but it was Abraham I was thinking of, not Moses. Or, at least, Abraham most of all. He’s told by God, not once but twice (Genesis 12:1, 22:2) to get up, go, find himself, don’t worry about where, God will show you. And that idea of journeying without knowing where you’re going is what appealed to me, the being drawn forward, but where are you the whole time? You’re in this desert, this vast and isolated space. And you don’t know if you’re close or far, or if in fact you’ve traveled any great distance at all, because the light plays tricks.
Now, I know the poems themselves don’t enact that exactly: there are trees and windows and clocks and doorlocks and couches and things.
Part of it, I confess, is that this title came late to this series of poems. Originally these were days of the week, starting I think with a Wednesday, which generated the wolves who chase the sun. But another part is just a function of how I compose, which often involves taking words or objects (or words as objects) and playing with them — subsetting them, rearranging letters, thinking of their opposites and apposites — and trying to get them to yield up some insight or emotional understanding I hadn’t had before. So the couches and the bathroom door cracks and the days started out as real, but they took me to that lonely place where I could see the lines being part of this series of poems, even if the narrative of the text itself isn’t set in the desert.
DP: Your collection seems to be sensitive to the coming of night and morning, the idea of home, and especially return and arrival. I most readily think of your poem “Field Glass (Manifest)” as a good example of all these themes working simultaneously. Can you comment on what inspired this? How conscious or unconscious are their recurrence? Did that element of consciousness change over time?
BM: It did become more conscious over time. The poem you mention was written in more or less one quick outpouring, though it did get a lot cut out of it afterward, and some minor revisions made. (Other poems have had a much more belabored history.) So that wasn’t a deliberate attempt to include these themes; it just was the headspace or wordspace I was in at the time. But in my MFA thesis workshop, we were put on “word watches” by Lucie Brock-Broido; I think I also had wings and lightning and dark, which I was happy to cut back on because I didn’t want the whole book to be too, too, well, for lack of a better word, emo. But I think it was around then, seeing the consistent presence of departure, travel, sand, light, that I began to think of the book as cohering around the Abrahamic journeys I mentioned earlier, and to look for more ways to build those up: more deserts, more field glasses, more sand.
DP: The interviews in your collection are among the most fascinating and difficult poems. Can you comment on how you imagine your readers accessing these poems?
BM: Though you might not know it to look at the pages, much of the book was written under the star of W.S. Merwin’s The Lice and The Moving Target; his “Noah’s Raven” was one of the first poems I remember learning by heart, and its spirit floats over the waters of my deserts. These interviews bear clear traces of Merwin’s “Some Last Questions,” which I’ll quote a little of if I’m allowed:
What is the head A. Ash What are the eyes A. The wells have fallen in and have Inhabitants What are the feet A. Thumbs left after the auction No what are the feet A. Under them the impossible road is moving Down which the broken necked mice push Balls of blood with their noses
and so on. As in other cases, what I think we’re both doing is trying to re-see the significance of something right in front of us, whether it’s parts of the body or parts of words. It’s a self-interrogation, a self-spurring onward beyond the first impression. When I write,
What is the sun?
A single star does not define an evening.
I really am trying to answer the question, but to use the search for an answer as invitation to aphorism, so the answer can also stand apart from the question — and, of course, to generate new questions in turn.
… Does that answer the question?
DP: Yes, that’s a fantastic answer, thank you.
DP: Your poem, “Checklist for a Savior” seems as much a critique of saviors in general as a critique of saviors in a Christian or other religious context. Many of your poems juxtapose spiritual musings with common daily happenings. There are multiple individuals that are likened to Biblical saviors. Regardless of the miraculous tasks included, do you imagine your speaker’s checklist as an appeal to any one savior or is the checklist more symbolic?
BM: Thanks for this question: I do think the intimation of the spiritual within the everyday is part of what I wanted here, throughout the book, not least because I felt a debt to some of the people who recommended me for graduate school: I applied at the same time to MFA programs and to rabbinical school, and had the same recommenders for both, which led to some interesting conversations, to be sure, but also a conviction that to walk through the world in search of a poem is in some ways to search for the numinous. That was one idea, anyway, and somehow I ended up with swans, so go figure.
This poem is not addressed to Jesus, if that’s what you mean, and in my own Jewish context the coming of the Messiah ushers in “ha’olam haba,” which I take to mean “the eternally approaching” (rather than the usual translation, “the world to come”). So in my head, the savior isn’t someone who actually does arrive. To use the terms of your question, then, this isn’t addressed to anyone in particular.
At the same time, I don’t think symbolic is quite right, either, at least in the sense of signs referring to some clearly marked referent. What’s important for me is the stance — the waiting — the speaker, more than the spoken-to. If the poem had only the last two lines, maybe it would work just as well. Or maybe then I wouldn’t be able to say them.
Benjamin Miller has studied at Harvard, Columbia, and the CUNY Graduate Center, and has taught writing at Columbia and Hunter College. His poems have appeared in RHINO, Pleiades, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere; Without Compass is his first book. For more about Ben, visit majoringinmeta.net.
Dustin Pearson is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University. He received his BA and MA in English Literature from Clemson University. He would eat white rice and soysauce regardless of living on a graduate student budget. He is from Summerville, South Carolina, and would love to direct your literary festival. He can be reached at Dustin.Pearson@asu.edu.
|More InterviewsJoseph D. HaskePaul LisickyMegan StaffelCraig Morgan Teicher|
The potholes in the road were filled with muddy water because it had rained the night before. Some of the holes, jagged around the edges, were the size of miniature craters and every time we reached one, we stomped our feet in it and sloshed the brown water on each other. We roared in excitement, our voices pummeling the cool and heavy morning air, as the water splashed on our clothes and skins. It was as if the dirty liquid were seeping into our bodies and energizing us for the task at hand. We were on our way to burn a thief.
We were partly shoving and partly dragging him along with us, hands under each armpit to keep his shaved head and muscled torso upright. At first, when we’d caught him hiding under the carpenter’s workbench with Auntie Naa’s smartphone stashed precariously in his boxers, he’d played stubborn, locking his arms around a leg of the bench when we’d tried to pull him out by his waistband. But a head-twisting slap had left him dazed and pliant. We’d hoisted him to his feet and stripped him of his tools, a screwdriver and a knife with a curved, glinting blade, similar to the ones the butchers used to slice through singed goat hides in the market. After that we’d yanked off his jean trousers, causing him to trip over his callused feet, and fall, and ripped off his t-shirt to reveal the crisscross of smooth, raised scars that decorated the entirety of his back; the man was obviously a career criminal. A bottle of kerosene and a box of matches were not hard to find.
“I beg you in Jesus’ name,” he’d started to cry when we began shoving and dragging him, head lowered, in our midst as we jogged down the main road. We’d ignored his pleas. Jesus himself, in all of his white glory, would have had to come down to rescue this guy. We’d caught others like him before but had let them go after a simple beating with our shoes and belts. Big mistake. They had returned with reinforcements while we slept, broken into our homes, tied us up and struck us with the blades of their machetes and the butts of their locally-manufactured pistols, and taken all that we’d toiled for and cherished the most. At least once a month, we woke up to find that a family in our neighborhood had been beaten and robbed. Two weeks before, armed robbers had shot Mr. Francis, who worked at the passport office, in both hands because he’d refused to tell them where he’d hidden his laptop. They preyed on our mothers who traded in the market and had to wake up while the sky was still gray to meet with the middlemen who supplied them with yams and tomatoes from the north and cassava and okro from the south. These criminals grabbed them while they waited for the buses, which ran infrequently during the early hours, slapped them until their faces ballooned, and stole the monies that they hid in the shorts they wore underneath their cloths. Lately, these animals had begun tearing off these shorts and raping our poor mothers! Right there in the open! Why couldn’t they just take the money and leave?
And we weren’t even rich people. Small Frankfurt, our neighborhood on the outskirts of Accra, consisted of two and three-bedroom bungalows haphazardly thrown together so that street names and house numbers would not make sense if they were ever introduced. Ours was one of those communities where most homeowners had not painted their houses and were comfortable with the grayness of the cement blocks. Cement blocks on which city workers frequently scrawled in red paint: REMOVE BY ORDER OF THE ACCRA METROPOLITAN ASSEMBLY. If only the Assembly cared as much about the state of our roads. All but the main road were un-tarred and the red dust that was whipped up by cars coated us and everything we owned. When we washed ourselves in the evenings, the water that spiraled down our drains was red. Not that we could afford to bathe every time we scratched our skins and saw the grime that accumulated underneath our fingernails. The water pipes had not yet reached us–and seemed like they never would–so most of us were buying water by the barrel from the dented water tankers that lined up on the side of the main road like the UN convoys that we watched on TV, driving into warzones. We were, therefore, stingy with the water in our drums and buckets. Not like those people who lived in neighborhoods like Kponano and Alistair. Those people who watered their expansive green lawns at noon when the sun was highest and had large flat screen TVs in their pristine villas and small flat screen TVs in their gleaming cars. People whose homes were littered with the things that robbers sought; the kinds of things that we barely had.
We neared the open field where we planned to burn him. There was a large mound of trash at the east end of that dusty tract of land, a putrid collection of the degradable and the non-degradable. We picked up speed, our feet rhythmically pounding the pavement like a police battalion marching against protestors. In fact, we were speeding up because of the police. We were sure that someone would have called them by now; they would fire bullets into the sky to disperse us if they showed up. The thief would be rescued, held for a few weeks, and released back onto the streets to terrorize us. We weren’t going to let that happen.
There were many others who wanted to stop us. Word of the thief’s capture and of our plan to necklace him had spread quickly. People, mainly women, had lined the road while others ran behind us. They still had on their sleeping clothes; the women with their cloths tied around their chests and their hair gathered in hairnets. Toothbrushes and chewing sticks poked out of many mouths.
“This man has a mother somewhere o, you cannot do this,” Auntie Naa was screaming from somewhere behind us. You would think that she would have been grateful that we’d retrieved her phone and were about to punish the thief who had stolen it. That we were about to send a strong warning to others who refused to work and, instead, chose to use our community as an ATM. Another woman began to ululate. In between the piercing cries she shouted, “Come and see o, our youths are about to kill somebody’s son.” Annoyed, we began a protest chant that immediately drowned her out.
Weee no go gree
We no go gree
We no go gree
Weee no go gree
“We will not agree!” we sang. We clapped our hands and stomped our feet harder. The surface of the un-tarred road onto which we’d branched was too damp to produce dust. Instead clods off dirt flew into the air around our feet and stung those whose legs were uncovered. Not like we felt the pain. The chant had thrown us into a frenzy. We’d become encased in a bubble, generated by our lungs, that blocked out any sound that wasn’t produced by us. We were one clapping, singing, stomping body, pulsing with our determination to avenge what those criminals had done to us. This one, who was stupid enough to strike at dawn when some of us were awake and alert enough to begin the chase as soon as Auntie Naa raised the alarm, would pay the debt that his brothers owed. It seemed like he’d resigned himself to his fate and had stopped crying out the name of his Jesus. Or maybe he hadn’t stopped, but how were we supposed to know that, enclosed in our bubble like we were?
As we stepped onto the field, we were approached by about twelve of the older men who were not with us. They’d come to rescue the thief. We immediately formed a circle around him. They might have invaded our ring of sound but we dared them to break through our solid wall of flesh. They threw their bodies at our barricade but we held strong and surged forward. They stumbled and fell at our feet. We would have trampled them if they weren’t our fathers, uncles, and older brothers. We marked time until they got to their feet and began to stagger away, defeated.
We threw the thief onto the edge of the trash heap so that his head was cushioned by rotten bananas and cow entrails while his legs lay on the red dirt. We pulled a frayed tire from a ledge of waste above his head and formed a semicircle around him. It was time. He was now frantically searching our faces and boring through our eyes with his. His eyes were watery. We became still. Our throats closed up and our sound bubble began to rise and float away without us.
“God will not forgive you, don’t do this,” we heard one of the women shout.
“Why won’t the men stop them?” someone else cried.
Their voices were intruding on us, breaking our concentration. We had to act quickly. We lifted his shoulder and put the tire around his neck. He was whimpering. He cupped both hands and began slapping them together. The fool thought he could beg his way out of this. As if he and his friends listened when our mothers pleaded with them at the bus stop in the dark. We poured the kerosene over the length of his body. Some of it splashed on our legs and we drew back, our chests heaving. We were struggling to breathe; there was no air, only the stench of kerosene and garbage. The thief, on the other hand, was breathing just fine. He began struggling to stand up, as if the kerosene had ignited his desire to live. The tire around his neck made his efforts clumsy, almost comical. We jabbed our feet into his legs and thrust him back down onto the trash. He started doing the thing with his eyes again, looking at me as if he was trying to escape from his body into mine, through my eye sockets. My palms became slick with sweat. My hands stiffened and I felt that if I wriggled my fingers, they would break with a loud clack. This had never happened to me before. Even when I dissected a frog in the lab for the first time, when I made a vertical incision down its abdomen with my scalpel and pulled apart both glossy flabs to reveal the dark brown of its large intestine and the pale pink of its small intestine. My hands had been steady, flexible. But now, my wet and stiff fingers caused the matchbox to slip and fall.
“Pick it up,” Henry said to me. The matchbox had landed near my right foot. It was touching my big toe.
Why should I be the one to pick it up, weren’t we all standing there? And who was he to tell me what to do?
“Priscilla, stop wasting time and pick the thing up,” Kweku said. We were standing pressed so close together that I could feel his sweat on my arm. I turned my head and glared at him.
“Don’t you have hands?” I snapped. I was used to fighting with Kweku. He’d sat behind me in school since kindergarten and we both planned to study biology in the university next year. I stepped back so that the matchbox was no longer touching my toe.
“My sandals!” Susan yelped. She’d been standing behind me, mashed up against my back. I ignored her. Hadn’t she known she was wearing sandals when she was jumping into puddles of dirty water a few minutes ago? Besides, she was the one who’d brought up this idea about burning the next thief we caught. She’d been furious because robbers had broken into her house, stripped her father naked, slapped him around, and made him do jumping jacks in front of his family. He’d had a heart attack the next day. She’d said that necklacing was how people dealt with robbers in other places, maybe in other countries. When she brought up the idea I should have told her that that is not what is done here.
“I beg you, sister,” the thief sobbed. Now he was focused only on me. No one had made a move to pick up the matchbox.
I retreated further into the wall of people behind me. A chorus of “agyeis,” “ouches,” “ahs,” and “ohs” followed my move. I imagined us falling down on each other like dominoes, falling so low that we were face to face with the thieves, rapists, and murderers who dwelled at that level. When I turned, each person was still erect but shuffling backward. Sensing his moment, the thief struggled to his feet, lifted the tire from around his neck, and dropped it on the ground in front of him. I stepped back even farther; I didn’t want kerosene on my uniform. The man began to walk sideways in the gap between the pile of rubbish and the now-cracking wall that we’d formed. I didn’t try to stop him. No one else did. He glanced at me and then at his escape route, once. Three seconds later, his legs were scissoring the air as he ran toward the opposite end of the field. A voice in the back–it sounded like my mother’s–said, “Won’t you people hold him until the police come?” I didn’t answer, no one did. We began to disperse. I had to go back home; I hadn’t even had breakfast yet and my shoes were wet.
Look for more work by Peace Adzo Medie in Issue 6, due out this November.
IN THE PLACE OF BEST INTENTIONS
As this is not the land of ice packs
and regenerations, of spent glue guns
or antiseptic counters—since shy
reminders filter through the streets all night
(mountain streams that city fountains sip)
absconding with old disappointments—
because the powerlines are wet with flames
that spill their music into shallow halls
devoid of short-term motives, I am lost
and cannot say what may have led me here
to watch the girls unwrapping fiberboard
from miles of burlap while the waitresses
tattoo their angry daisies on my arms.
What is this place that leaves me so unmoved?
A hat I’d never worn or wanted worn
is now my prized possession; tissues packed
into abandoned zipper pockets breed—
I had forgotten that the small glass cups
were hidden in my socks and that my hands
were laced with fine red scratches
long before the advent of arrival. Now I feel
the heat of my illusion dim to tremble,
a dull intrusion into some romantic
basement of unknowable books. And so
forgive me if the water left for tea
is steeped in silt and valentines; forgive
the unexpected token undisclosed.
Last night I thought I wanted tragedy,
a chance to wick away the morning’s
donut, bagel, muffin, scorn. But to span
the gap from night to night, from night
to some hello, is more than I can yet
achieve: a phone that rings without response
and without end or empathy.
Belief is a raft tossed out on a thirsty plain.
Were I that lonesome, I’d never have left.
ON THE MARGINS OF THE PORTABLE COUNTRY
The making of ideology, of how stories learn,
ends in bone. Thus, facts without lives are trouble.
Even squall, the art of, must learn to scramble hours
as the scribblers do; and so some argument electric
in its innocence arrives to silver fictions
out of mauve and maudlin discipline.
All worthy hearts embark. But who returns
from such a journey—who could tent beneath
that zoo and cairn with time’s fool law
and still press on unscathed? (The lathe, the nick,
the cutting tree remembering the cutting.)
On the margins of the portable country,
a stranger compendium lands its craft
of pleasure and scorn, a balloon
in love with a wood, a turtle fallen
from the subjunctive into the academy.
I’ve started marking up a manual of dangers.
You have not all been selected.
IN THE WAKE OF AVOIDABLE TRAGEDY
What little remains is clear: it is over.
The first and the last having gone
and returned, come and returned,
we have learned to welcome those
who make the place feel welcoming.
A guitar in the corner hoards the light,
says: you, in a collapsing world,
your eyes such sharp, undarkened things.
From Without Compass (c) 2014 by Benjamin Miller.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
“In the Wake of Avoidable Tragedy” was first published in The Greensboro Review.
No turning back. Deep in the Utah desert now, having left one home
to return to the temple of my grandfather. I press the pedal
hard. Long behind me, civilization’s last sign—a bent post
and a wooden board: No food or gas for 200 miles. The tank
needling below half-full, I smoke Camels to soothe
my worry. Is this where it happened? What’s left out there of Topaz
in the simmering heat? On quartzed asphalt I rush
past salt beds, squint at the horizon for the desert’s edge: a lone
tower, a flattened barrack, some sign of Topaz—the camp
where my mother, her family, were imprisoned. As I speed
by shrub cactus, the thought of it feels too near,
too close. The engine steams. The radiator
hisses. Gusts gather, wind pushes my Civic side
to side, and I grip the steering wheel, strain to see
through a windshield smeared with yellow jacket wings, blood
of mosquitoes. If I can find it, how much can
I really know? Were sandstorms soft as dreams or stinging
like nettles? Who held my mother when the wind whipped
beige handfuls at her baby cheeks? Was the sand tinged
with beige or orange from oxidized mesas? I don’t remember
my mother’s answer to everything. High on coffee
and nicotine, I half-dream in waves of heat: summon ghosts
from the canyon beyond thin lines of barbed wire. Our name
Ishida. Ishi means stone, da the field. We were gemstones
strewn in the wasteland. Only three days
and one thousand miles to go before I reach
San Francisco, the church where my mother was born
and torn away. Maybe Topaz in the desert was long
gone, but it lingered in letters, photos, fragments
of stories. My mother’s room now mine, the bed pulled blank
with ironed sheets, a desk set with pen and paper. Here
I would come to understand.
TEMPLE BELL LESSON
Son, I am weighted.
You are light.
Our ancestors imprisoned,
in sand, swinging
between scorching air
and the insult
Their skin bronzed
to their sorrow
Any noise alerts me. My wife Grace shifts beneath our comforter.
Respecting my uncles long dead, I climb from bed, grab
the bat, climb stairs, walk halls with a thousand sutras shelved
high, my grandparents’ moonlit ink floating on pages sheer
as veils, the word Love rescued from censors. In the nursery
I check window-locks, sense my son Brendan falling in and out
of seizures and sleep. Backed by the altar, its purple chrysanthemum
curtains, gold-leafed lily pads, corroded rice paper, I crouch
then stand at the window to watch silhouettes fleeing
past streetlamps, the gate unmoored from its deadbolt, unhinged
from ill-fitted screws and rusted nails. The front door cottoned
with fog shakes in night wind. Backyard bushes rustle. For now
I let the mendicants crack open our prickly crowns of aloe, soothe
their faces with gel, drop bottle-shards and cigarette butts that slash
and burn our stairs. Inside, we fit apart and together.
Grace and Brendan sleeping, me standing guard.
From my grandfather’s scrolls moths fly out, and I grab at air
to repel the strangeness of other lives circling toward us.
From Topaz (c) 2013 by Brian Komei Dempster.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of “Gatekeeper” was first published in Parthenon West Review.
Topaz, Brian Komei Dempster’s debut poetry collection, examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. This volume delves into the lasting intergenerational impact of imprisonment and breaks a cultural legacy of silence. Through the fractured lenses of past and present, personal and collective, the speaker seeks to piece together the facets of his own identity and to shed light on a buried history.
In honor of poet, teacher, editor, and Four Way Books author Stephen Berg, who passed away last week, we’re proud to re-print one of his prose poems, which first appeared in his collection, Shaving.
When I think of it now I still see just how ugly and dirty the place was, what a bare unprotected monk-like life it was that year, living first in the old tire warehouse on the outskirts of town, no toilet or sink, no furniture, nothing except two ratty mattresses, fruit crates, blankets from home, unfinished splintery lath walls, gobs of hard gray mortar squeezed between bricks, and everywhere the acrid stink of tire rubber, dirt and dust, everywhere in high black stacks truck tires, car tires, hundreds, except for one small room, probably an office once, where we slept and read. The teeth–like treads gleamed in the dark. Some nights I’d choke with asthma from the filth, from rage, from how far away home was. Some nights we’d lie in our room reading by the sallow light of the small bulbs of the bed lamps we got at a junk shop and nailed up on our walls. Outside the fields of Iowa went on forever, a ditch of yellow mud bordered the north wall. Some nights Bob and I would bundle up in everything we owned and go out and stare at the shoals of stars, pale surfy swarms pulsing slightly, stand half-drunk in the lampless cityless darkness rambling about poetry, family, sex, loneliness. Once, I remember, I took out an old silver Bach cornet I picked up in a pawnshop for 15 bucks and tried to play the thing, stood on the edge of the ditch leaning back, pointing the horn straight at the sky, but all that came were squawking mewing fartlike tuneless wails, jagged held notes. At one point—the horn against my lips—I took a wrong step into the ice-crusted watery slough and stumbled and fell and almost broke off my front teeth. For months I carried the mouthpiece in my pocket, fondling it, taking it out to heft, practicing on it to build my lip, fweeting a few raw notes whenever I felt like it—walking across campus, on the street. I kept myself company like that, I became somebody else, mostly Bix because I envied his sweet pure tone, the steadiness and range, his strict, condensed phrasing, the direct brevity of his style, a miraculously articulated, triumphant sadness. Before long we took an apartment in the heart of town—bought new mattresses, desks, two chairs, built bookcases with cinderblocks and boards—two rooms, high doors between, where we’d write, often at the same time early in the morning or late at night. It was wonderful being serious about writing, believing oneself able to hear someone hearing your voice, to hold a human gaze, wonderful feeling haunted, if you were lucky, by lines, impulses, hot formless combinations of phrases that led your hands over the keys at a speed beyond understanding, beyond experience. Then out would come the paper with words on it and you’d begin again—chop, change, shift, hack, put something back or stick it somewhere else, anything seemed possible in that mood—to hear the necessary mind of the poem. Otherwise it was classes and the usual college shit: football games, parties, gossip, worry about grades. Then the snow came and everything was lost under it, everything slowed. Sometimes it fell neck-deep. People wallowing through would shovel paths on the sidewalks. You’d see heads floating along the top of the snow walls. The quads and fields were cratered and scarred with ruts like a moon map glowing blue-white. Hard to describe the mood of Iowa City after one of those big snows, but I was happier than I knew then, trapped there, purified of choice by isolation, schedules breaking down, the roads out of town impassable. We’d stay up till three or four in the morning, playing pinball machines in an all-night diner a few blocks away, or reading, trying to write. The vividness of words on a page in a book, the sound of the human on a printed page, was never more compelling and intense than on those long nights of immense calm while the snow under the street lamps lay there, consolingly white and quiet, going on for miles. The Workshop quonsets looked like sleeping animals, down by the Iowa River. You could walk across it and not break through; you could see the wide brown road of water underneath roiling past. The uncountable rows of footprints crossing and recrossing, the snowy lid of ice, made my scalp prickle. It looked eerie, too meaningful—why, I still can’t figure out—that bright, pocked, luminous crust scored by those shadowy holes. And nothing came there, not at night in the bleak Midwestern cold, unless an animal happened by. At night if you drove out of town (after the roads were plowed, snow mounded ten feet high on either side), where it seems nothing exists but fields, endless open fields, if you looked across the glowing sugary land, you might say that the silence and peace you were at one with had always been and always would be.
“. . .Stephen Berg’s Shaving is the first book of prose poems I have read that has made me re-examine the function and power of that branch of our poetry. It is a book of strenuous and often dangerous self-witness; an astounding overview of American urban life at the apex and turning point of a major civilization. . .most importantly, it is brilliantly written. . .In reading Berg you will be reading the master of the prose poem. – Jorie Graham
i watch him touch him self over a screen
and pretend it is with my hands
how you pull a quiver from an arrow.
he moans and i grow jealous of the satellites.
their capacity for translation, to code his sound
in numbers unbraiding in my speakers
lucky metal audience of cables.
i know the wireless signal is all around me,
that i’m drowning in his unrendered noise.
how from a thousand miles away i can dam
myself with the light spilling from his hands.
what magic is this? distance collapsed
into the length of a human breath. what witchcraft?
six years ago a bridge between us collapsed
the interstate ate thirteen people alive
asphalt spilling like amputated hands
into the dark below. what is love but a river
that exists to eat all your excess concrete
appendages? what is a voice but how it lands
wet in the body? what is distance
but a place that can be reshaped through language?
how i emulate and pull a keyboard from the ashes.
how i gave him a river and he became it’s king.
how any thing collapsed can be rebuilt.
take our two heaving torsos take them
how they fall like a bridge into the water
how they rise up alone from the sweat.
BILDUNGSROMAN (SAY: PYOO-BUR-TEE).
i never wanted to grow up to be anything horrible
as a man. my biggest fear was the hair they said
would burst from my chest, swamp trees
breathing as i ran. i prayed for a different kind
of puberty: skin transforming into floor boards,
muscle into cobwebs, growing pains sounding
like an attic groaning under the weight of old
photo albums. as a kid i knew that there was
a car burning above water before this life,
that i woke here to find fire scorched my
hair clean off until i shined like glass – my eyes,
two acetylene headlamps. in my family we have
a story for this. my brother holding me
in his hairless arms. says, dad it will be a monster
we should bury it.
god bless all policemen & their splintering night sticks splintering & lord
have mercy on their souls. god bless judges in their empty robes who send
young men off to prisons with a stain from their antiquated pens. god bless
all the king’s monsters & all the kings men. god bless the sentence
& its inevitable conclusion. god bless the predators, curators of small
sufferings. god bless the carpet that ate one hundred dollars of chris’s
cocaine. god bless cocaine & the colophon of severed hands it takes
to get to your nostrils. god bless petroleum & coffee beans & sugar cane
& rare earth minerals used to manufacture music boxes. god bless the gas
chamber & the gas that makes the shower head sing. god bless the closet
i trapped a terrified girl in with my two good hands. god bless the night
those good boys held my face to a brick wall & god bless those boys
& good god bless the strange heat that pressed back.
you cannot beg
with a mouth
A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters
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“Sam Sax’s poems are ravenous, intimate, and brutal. God is ‘a man with a dozen bleeding mouths’ and ‘a boy drags his dead dog across the night sky’ and ‘shadows sing.’ Tongued and loved, a butthole becomes a trumpet, a second mouth. His poems reject the given. His poems seek out new encounters between flesh and world, between language and memory. Bristling with stunning images and formally astute, his poems nurture and bruise.” ~ Eduardo Corral