POEM IN TIEFMOS
Saturday, February 20, 2021
After years spent trying
to dissect the moon,
I settled back
into longing, open fields,
into the horizontal meadows of light.
I turned down
the wind-strewn road
to where my father
tended a garden
and the dual energies
from this world and the next
danced in the koi pond,
shining like ancient fur.
Calling the Council
Take up the forest in your arms,
the darkling birds and cedar boughs,
the rivers rerunning to the sea.
Take the straggling myths
and gnarled amanitas,
the secret hours of the witch.
Take whatever the moon loved
in the winding labyrinth, carry it
to your makeshift shelter.
Pour your ancient libations
over the wounded and dead.
Cast your spells of sunlight.
We need healers to rise
from the sleep of ages.
We need new languages
of terror and grace.
The clockwork light has bound me
again in its linear cages.
What force will strike the rundown mansion
and open the doors to the wind?
Will re-invite the field grasses
to their creeping indignities, or let
the molten fires pour in
like some punishment of song?
Awake, old magisterial darkness
in the bowels of the house, Awake!
All of beauty is a pull from the unknown.
The mischievous and deadly hand
inviting us. Outwards.
The disfigured angel or gorgeous chthonic god
tugging our heartstrings
toward some ineluctable wager,
some suicidal leap of faith.
Staying in Bed
Swim out into the last bleak throughway
of the night, where even the stars
fear to hover, where the wondrous
and pain-ridden light of being
churns out of the furnace, not yet drinkable,
not yet in the shapes of trees or scissors,
not yet the namable palpitations of love.
Maybe a god could live there,
maybe the Buddhas themselves,
but not us. Follow the course
back downriver into the comfortable
boundaries the moon delimits.
Kiss the curving palms and delicious wind.
Let all the lava pour into your hunger
with its molten jewels.
Stake nothing on transcendence.
All the fire we need to live
is burning freely at the door.
Unrated 112 minutes B&W and Color. French and Portuguese. Dir. Gordon Chamois, Starring: Peugeot Martinique and Antoinette Dubois-Dupris
The oldest son of a poor, sick janitor leaves his family and walks to town to find work. A sympathetic breadmaker employs the boy to sweep his storefront. At the end of the week, the boy is paid with a huge, sparkling quarter. He hands the coin back to the baker and buys a loaf of bread. The boy takes the bread back to his family. They sit around the table. The boy places the loaf in the center of the table. They sit. Baby sister. Baby Brother. Pa. Ma. The Boy. Each face spotted with soot. The mother stands. Wipes her hands along her torn kitchen dress and cuts five slices from the loaf, passing one to each ashen face. Split screen: Five mouths open. Five mouths chew. Five faces weep. Fin.
2) Your Love Has Made Me Suffer
NC-17. 127 minutes. B&W. Slovenian. Directed by Pierre LaPierre. Starring Simone Basquiat, and Jon Eidolon
Shot in one continuous take, the film follows a repressed, middle-aged woman in a white dress and long dark coat who, for one night, goes on an exploration of her sexuality in a neighborhood grocery store. While fingering the papayas, she eyes a 16 year old produce clerk and begins a mating dance. They circle one another while she strokes the cantaloupes. They flirt in frozen foods, they hump in housewares. They write sensual haikus in steamed breath on the ice cream freezer window. The boy leads her to the stockroom and makes passionate love to her on mountains of leafy mustard greens. Naked beneath the shadow of a life-size TV detective holding a roll of paper towels, the boy, his sweaty face seemingly peeled afresh--begins a monologue about his dead father. The woman looks at the boy. They weep. Fin.
3) We Shall Wait
PG-13. 99 minutes. Color. In Dutch with English subtitles. Dir. Mario Ferrogamo. Starring Derek Derragon and Frida Francois
A mature woman opens the gate to a cottage. She leans like a hummingbird over a purple rhododendron blooming at the entrance. She picks it, lifts it to her face. She enters the yard, holding the flower close to her cheek. She approaches the cottage door, turns the doorknob, enters. A mature man is seated on the rooms’ divan. His face is a stern mask. She approaches, sits next to him. Says: “I shall wait until you are dead.” She slips the flower into his breast pocket. She folds her now empty hands in her lap. They weep. Fin.
4) Love is a Bird with Freedom
Unrated. 200 minutes. B&W. In French. Dir. Jean-Luc Kieslowski. With Simone Chateau and Herbert Hermione.
Everyday a young couple stands at a pier overlooking the bay. They are very much in love. They gaze deep into one another's eyes and whisper "j'taime… j'taime..." as if it were the name of the god that brought them together. One day, there is an accident. The young woman-- a former gymnast-- slips from the pier, falls into the black water drowns. The young man is destroyed. Years later, the former young man, now gray haired, creaks slowly along the same pier where he lost his love so many years before. He considers the water which looks the same as it did when he was so very young and so very much in love. Then a seagull lands on the railing next to him and vomits up a fish.
The gull regards the man.
The man regards the gull.
The fish eye reflects them both.
The gull whispers "J'taime" and flies away.
The man regards the fish.
The fish weeps.
The man weeps.
5) Un Autre Homme, Une Autre Femme (Another Man, Another Woman)
NC-17. 100 Minutes. In French. Color. Dir. Spike LeBleu. Starring Isabelle Perotte and Phillipe Droutte
A man holds a silver mailbox beneath his arm while standing on a subway platform. The train approaches. He enters a train car cradling the mailbox as if it were an infant. He sits across from a woman reading a newspaper. She looks up at him briefly, friendly. She returns to her newspaper. But, feeling his unwavering glance she looks up at the man again. He opens the mailbox and reaches inside. He quietly pulls out a huge fish. He humbly lays it across the paper on her lap.
She looks up at him.
I got an issue of Poets & Writers in the mail yesterday. I enjoyed what I read, but it was not inspiring at all. It was realistic. It was honest about the uphill battle it is to get a book seen. I know the work of this all too well. But this letter is not about books, this is about voice and the love and armor you will need to have yours heard.
When I think about being a writer in 2015, being a writer with a Black woman’s voice—as Lucille Clifton said, “I am a black woman poet…and I sound like one.”—with no agent, no powerful mentor opening doors, no financial support, no salary, no benefits, then I realize that this really is a crazy path.
Deciding to be a writer was beautiful. Writing is beautiful. Deciding that my concerns, dreams, hopes, and voice are valid, and committing myself to putting my visions on paper has been a deeply healing experience. This work connects me to people I have never set my eyes on. However, being a writer in a country that does not support art and writing from the heart of my Black woman mama mouth is a struggle that sometimes leaves me speechless. (But the point is to exhaust me/us beyond words, isn’t it? So I rest up and speak on.) Beloved, this landscape is actually more treacherous now than when I started nineteen years ago. I don’t say this to discourage you, I say this because you need to know that you are embarking on the path of most resistance; if you plan to walk it, you need to study and you need to endure.
Listen, there is all sort of color in academic conferences and departments now. Much of that writing is non-threatening and status quo. It’s the type of work that could have come from 18th-century nowhere. It’s work that no one in our communities or families could wrap around cold shoulders or grasp onto in desperate moments or even nod at in faint recognition. That, we are constantly being told, is poetry. That exsanguinated verse. But you and I both know poetry can be soulful, grounded, gravity-defying and irrepressible. If your poems walk picket lines, work in soup kitchens, gather dandelion leaves, sweat, jump rope, wear stilettos, shout, give birth, watch the phases of the moon, or know that it is appropriate to put flowers in the ocean on New Year’s Eve and pour liquor on the earth before anyone living takes a sip, then supposedly they are not poems. Supposedly, you missed the memo on craft, and your poems will be returned to sender. Save your postage. Honor your time.
Tap your Cimarron blood, tap the defiant DNA that gives your hair such good posture. Find a community of poets dedicated to writing and walking and being liberation. Study Hughes, Baldwin, Walker, Hurston, Shange, Baraka, Hayden, Dumas, Bandele, Johnson, Girmay, Moore, Rux, Hammad, Clifton, Rich, Boyce-Taylor, Medina, Madhubuti, Brooks, Forche, Ya Salaam, Rojas, Rivera, Knight, Esteves, Kaliba, Simmons, Kaufman, Sanchez, Finney, Betts, Espada, & Perdomo. This is your work and there are so many more to study; you will find them as you make your way. Read, write, edit and find a way—let the poems find their way—get those words read and heard. Find someone unbought to publish your stuff. Be really brave and publish the work yourself, but don’t stop there. Publish the poets around you who stand on the frontlines and refuse to bow down. Publish those mamas bringing their babies to readings, those poets whose works are in anthologies that they read in the food stamp office, those lettered poets who can’t make the rent, those poets with a day job who organize free workshops and salons, those poets who never lose their accents, the ones cast off in a spoken word ghetto because they actually dare to connect with an audience. Publish all of them, who are all of us, who fight this fight because we are determined to keep the doors open for the next generation, and because we would go crazy without our tongues, without our pens braiding the strands of our thoughts into some type of beauty. Not pressing our voices flat. Flat to that white rageless whisper. Not doing that and paying a heavy price.
And so it is.
For the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell and it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
- James Baldwin
It was good to receive your letter. I’m glad you were able to use some of my advice on editing. Remember that I can give you suggestions, but you will soon start to find your own rhythm. You asked me so many thoughtful questions; I’ll start with the one about what it means to be a writer.
I think being a writer means being a person. Being human. Humane. Being engaged. Being open. Curious. Caring. Being able to listen and look deeply. Being an artist means being connected with truth and speaking the truth as it reveals itself to you. Being an artist means that your heart will break, and it will be your work to mend it again and again.
You are right that my art is one form of my activism. This is because I have been the beneficiary of carefully chosen words delivered with love. Words delivered with love by Alex Haley and Malcolm X cause me to look in the mirror one day and stop frowning at my own face. I understood the history of my nose, mouth, and skin and suddenly, I was proud. Can you imagine? Those same words helped me to revel in the thicket of my hair, stop being ashamed, and I understood then, in a way I had not before, the power of the word. This is called “Nommo” by the Dogon. I attempt to wield my words as wisely as I would any sharp tool. It’s the job of the writer to do this.
Here is a story for you. A friend and I were talking about faith and natural healing. We were talking about the plants and prayer and our elders and all the wisdom they had that we needed to tap back into. My friend asked me if I’d ever heard of “talking the fire out.” I said I hadn’t. She went on to explain to me that her mother was able to use words—prayerful, intention, words—to make a person’s burn stop stinging and that was called “talking the fire out.” Now this is not fiction. So I said, “wow” because what else do you say to something like that? I remembered wishing I had the ability to “talk the fire out” too, but now I realize that in a way, I do. I realize that many times when I put my pen to paper it is an attempt to write the fire out. It’s an attempt to write the pain, the stinging of some wound or another. So when I decided to be a writer I decided my work would serve this purpose. When my work is not celebrating something, it is bearing witness to pain and the process of the healing which is a celebration of another kind. This is the celebration of resilience and the writing is—no matter how painful the subject matter—a shout of joy at still being here.
Consider that when you create art, you have medicine in your hands. Consider that you can pull people together for just reasons. What is just? I’d say it is what does not oppress or dismiss the humanity of anyone. What is just is compassionate and of love. I mean real love, which is not always romantic or beautiful. I mean the type of love that wakes up at 4 a.m. to work and provide a better life for a family, the love we saw at marches during the ‘60s, real love that does laundry, brushes hair, tills the soil, plants trees, chains itself to pipelines. Hard love. Difficult conversations and the willingness to sit down at the table and have them. Our writing can be all of that: the conversation, the table and the willingness. When I talk about art and activism, I am talking about love.
And so, even with all of your pointed questions about editing, knowing when a poem is done, and what to do to become a better writer, I ask you to remember that the life you live is art. Sit with yourself and ask why you want to be a writer. Determine what purpose you want your words to serve in the world.
Please send me your answer.
To order copies of Dear Continuum: Letters to a Poet Crafting Liberation, via Indiebound.org, see here.
Our present psycho-lingual engulfs the past not unlike a psychic lahar, not unlike an exploded embolism where former states of consciousness can no longer procure the right to organically instruct. We have now entered the realm of alchemical lingual resonance. To attempt to procure a recursive lingual agenda can only be seen via a deprived and disordered instruction. To retreat to the English language as it sought to express itself at the cusp of Jim Crow can nothing other than atrophy the mind. The future is upon us. And this future is not a thriving cliche, or an enabled relic, brought to view to theoretically surmount a destroyed position. Thus we cannot instruct language via the vestiges of a disabled heritage that has no place in the living scheme of our current neural unfolding. For the Cal State lingual environment to retreat into such a debased climate of instruction can not be tolerated or condoned as organic promotion. Decades after Rodney King, and what feels like an eternity after the murder of George Floyd, the recent flowering of the Cal State writing board cannot be defamed by retreat into the minor codes of obstructionist academia. Language should not be instructed from a deadened point of view. Of course I am not speaking from some didactic warren, or some constricting molecular substrate, but from an existential dynamics that now registers by overcoming regressive lingual instruction. The lingual dimension of the Cal State campus represents what I understand to be transmuted planetary English. From Formosa to Persia English there now subsists indigenous planetary expansion not spores that persist and emit themselves from condemned climate proto to Jim Crow. Let us take the English that was Philip Lamantia, or the English that brewed in the cells of Bob Kaufman as living examples. We can no longer breed relics as models for future lingual instruction. And no this is not a cry for blind lingual wandering on my behalf but for an alchemical emergence of world language via the 250,000 terms that flood our language as a wondrous psychic blessing. Evolving students cannot be forced to devolve and swallow old destructive sub-texts. This amounts to nothing other than a deformed and catastrophic gesture that will negatively reflect on itself as a willful squandering of energy during this inflection point as we open onto a newly living planetary history.
conclusively with little to merit the matter save for exasperation & pigtails
even counting no longer assumes the gravity of forefathers these are
dangerous times rapid meltdowns extinction the disappearance of distinction
rot school systems unhealthy gums americans are overfed the root if you
choose to use it would be to eat less fundamental foregone rudiments have a
way of veneer as if there were skid behind it a capsize likely outcome if you
want to consider intervention mandolins maintain bludgeon a lurk difficult to
remove in the best of times there will be a higher calling a grander court
jurisprudence with a flag before it above below sideways sidewinder cinder
transitional steps proffer the offer one step at a time sucks get there just get
leap beyond unfriendly fear of remissions emissions remonstrance painstaking
dream therapy leisure pursuits golf the upper class elite grass & democratic
hyperbole dash a long footstool comforter well wishes welfare if only uncaged
propositions bare their feet hail the reappearance of sanity a disguise for
malfeasance functionality the future of napkins dualism is a tired concern grab
a cab take a bus the way things fall to pieces break asunder scatter little shares
the integrity of crimson the lightness of the deeply grave Italo Calvino
comeuppance comes unannounced but for fertilizer with considerable
consideration consider decimals the company of bees prowl logarithmic
tensility the endurance of topsoil off the top of hence strategies call for
backfire a fresh deck pinwheels catholicism & the collapse of time could it
would it who would benefit be otherwise wise for the wise only collect
portable religions the currency of afterlife cannot be overstated but for
another shot all that church mortar black & white robing austerity somber
music water dipping prayers hoopla benedictions sanctimonies sacrifices ritual
habitual never caring much for anecdote the classroom emptied only
momentarily a paw for silence overgrowth as if could in what capacity a
species of arrangement that only that none other either close envisioning of all
kinds a new member coordinator for our mens wisdom workshop met for
lunch yesterday Kantian Ethics in high regard where to go heave ho go blow
the downside upside flipside down under yonder hardly if only barter endures
when in a manner of speaking the plan was profitability when all else failed
who would have thought perturb like that that color of tone crimson the
integrity of crimson always crimson jade belie sty in the eye order rare ribeye
slice cut your teeth the old poets parting wisdom was care for your teeth
assuming one assumes that care of the erectile gland a given entry point for
starters climb upon upwardly mobile crimson framed in flame the point of
departure always questionable would if could perhaps out for delivery deliver a
key term in liveliness omnithreatened out maneuvered the subject was theater
tickets overpriced considering the seats were soiled theres no turning back
lunchbox chuckwagon gather round the subject was indifference faulty
electronics there comes a time who would have thought endangered species
with unemployment low ratios percolate the best of times hunky dory amos &
andy handy candy feathering T Rex its all in the interpretation some say it’s
chance the life of semicolon the life of comma pursuing doctorate studies in
the life of the apostrophe mechanics organize mobility principles are principal
when if so the time comes apparently more than most how was your this time
of year if so light breeze over the waft drift sift swallow slide angling never
delivered so much pleasure deliver again so much liver in deliver delete liver
from delivered deed indeed we go deed stampede like it like that how low can
you go limbo rock twist pony the moon comeuppance platters dog obedience
& matinees often wondering why when when was called for deliberations
begin after tea western philosophy is founded on division...
Results resulted from a chapbook invitation from Trainwreck Press. My first thought was to publish a “seep” sequence but was worried that it might conflict with my upcoming “seep” volume from Black Widow Press. Wondering what to submit, whether or not “seep” should be vetoed, “results” slammed into my psyche.
I envision a 25 page verbal spontaneous rush which would be free of the currently popular trend of typographical “décor” so facilely enabled on today’s computers. This was a project with constraints:
I would insist that the unadorned ‘word’ carry the day void of any ornamental flourishes; no punctuation would be permitted other than capitalizing proper names.
In this age of distraction & ready convenience, I felt this approach would
place a deeper responsibility on the language, that by reducing the text to the
purely lingual, the pressure for the word to perform at full capacity would be
Results (in its entirety) is included included in SEEP, which is available via Black Widow Press. To purchase copies of SEEP directly from the publisher, please see here.
At almost forty,
I’m finally learning to adult.
They say it’s never too late
to unfuck yourself,
but they’re wrong.
Some damage is irreparable.
When I started to floss,
it took weeks before I stopped
spitting blood in the sink.
They say my generation
is dying faster
than the generation
that came before.
That I believe.
For them, forty
was the new thirty.
I missed that cut-off.
Looking down the barrel of years
that may already be half-over,
I think how I will never
run a marathon,
never have savings
or a retirement fund,
never have a house or a child,
never learn to change a tire
or the oil in my car,
never learn to eat the salad
or drink the wine.
But flossing, now—
flossing I’ve got down,
how to get evicted,
how to lose everything,
how to suffer
and witness suffering,
how to catalog my scars,
how to crawl
out of the wreckage.
They tell you that you
have the power,
but you don’t.
That’s why we’re all
riddled with anxiety.
Helplessness is trauma.
They never tell you
that if you want
to walk among the stars
you have to withstand
the vacuum of space.
That’s what this suffering
supposedly prepares you for,
passage through needle’s eyes
and treading holy eight-fold paths.
I don’t know if it’s a talent
particular to me,
or if it’s all just context,
like a generation selling out,
beating their peace signs
into stock symbols,
like riding camels to some
from the backs of stars.
After centuries of acid baths and basalt suppers,
of turning my wounds into mouths that suck up your salt,
I wouldn’t know what to do with ease.
Give me an environment, a mechanism to feed.
I will find a way to thrive.
Give me your pressure, your ice matrices,
give me your alkaline, your heat.
Give me your trenches, your fissures,
the places where light cannot penetrate.
Give me your copper, your ions.
Give me desiccation.
We eat methane and breathe sulfur.
We are the meek, we are legion,
we are the strength of martyrs.
Unfettered from the demands
of stomach and blood, of root and stem,
we are the overlooked, the discounted.
In the pit we lurk, in the miles-down,
sanctuary of sanctuary, holy of holies,
we are a parable of the insignificant,
a scatter of mustard seeds,
a burst of wishes shaken from dandelion heads,
an aspiration beyond the coming end.
I find myself at the zoo, desperate for the scent
of your musk, for salt and hay. I am drawn
to a leonine form, a flash of tusk, muscles and fur.
This is a place of captivity, of bars and glass,
of gazes, of panting. The same hands
that tend the inmates can be either gentle
or bearer of the rifle. Both are familiar to me.
Wolves pace, even the ones that were born here,
longing for something they can’t put a name to.
Peacocks wander, lapis and gold, free to fly away,
but having no reason to, they stay put. Non-native plants
struggle to approximate home. We are a nation
of displacement, at the mercy of a love
we didn’t choose, doomed to only be half-tamed.
Behind the petting zoo fence, I run my fingers
across coarse and woolly hides, stroke snouts,
let thick tongues lick feed from my palms.
Warm bodies lean hard against my legs.
I let myself be pounced and pecked,
clawed and butted. These bruises and bitemarks
are the memory of your arms, the push-pull
of desire that shouldn’t be. Your castle kept out
as much as it kept in. The Greek gods did it.
Couldn’t we be divine? I too, can scoop water
from a trough. I too, can eat meat raw
and howl at the moon. I go home covered
in hair and feathers, smelling of wildness.
In my bed tonight, I will dream of a pack
of chimera children.
Sisters in Mo(u)rning
I look forward to
riding the bus
in the morning
black woman driver
mostly black women
I'm a big believer
in black girl magic
trailing the scent
of cocoa butter
down the aisle
their warm greetings
both empty and full
admiring each other's outfits.
I know I am the outsider
and I envy this
instant sorority they have
wherever they go.
I hear the driver talking
about a family picnic
and her nephew’s funeral
both being held Saturday.
"They killed him," she says.
The passenger nods
says that she, too,
lost a nephew
this past week
that she too
has a funeral Saturday.
Then they go on
El Chingue Chingue
On the boulevard, I wrap myself
in the colors of the picado flags
against a winter sky,
the scents of the taqueria
bringing me home,
the faded Virgin of Guadalupe mural
in the alley, the blue wall where
San Martin Caballero rides with the angels,
the house where my grandparents
lived as newlyweds.
An abuela holds forth
on the nature of el chingue chingue,
brandishing her cane for emphasis
as her grandson runs around the tables.
Finally, when the barbacoa is eaten,
and all that is left are
a few stray leaves of cilantro,
discarded shards of onion,
there is nothing to say but
Bye, mijito. Hasta mañana.