Benediction for Black Madonna

I’m stopping by briefly to share this work I turned in to my poetry workshop last semester. This poem is related to my thesis, but as usual, I can’t give more details than that because it feels like bad luck (?) to share information about something that is still so…scattered. I feel very protective of my project, and it’s not because I think I’m Beyoncé on some surprise album drop type of thing, because who am I??? (Ok maybe a little bit Beyoncé *twirls in Lemonade yellow*) Still, I’ve only talked about this work in detail with a few people. I cringe a little when people make definitive “when it’s done” statements, or when someone says, “Oh I told so-and-so about your work and they think it’s really cool!” I get that excitement can be contagious, but talking about it too much out loud before it’s anywhere close to ready feels a little like testing fate.

***

Blackmadonna
The Black Madonna of Częstochowa is often used to represent Erzulie Dantor, a Haitian lwa and patron of mothers, women who have suffered abuse, and queer women. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Erzulie Dantor slides off an altar in Jérémie and falls into a seat at a bus stop in Dorchester. Blue chiffon and bluer water solidify into metal iced over and stinging to the thigh. She leaves behind houses flattened like matchboxes, like old photographs pressed between the pages of an address book with phone numbers long faded, like luxury car tires over desperate land.

sleet tapping on the bus window ke-ke-ke-ke

She has unraveled herself from linen headwraps and skirts, and now feels pinched in a too tight brown coat missing the top button she fidgeted away. White ruffles and bare stomping feet turn to dry ankles dusted with grey and jutting out of black bedroom slippers, dragged to tatters by hostile ground.

bones protesting when she tries to rise up ke-ke-ke-ke

She has teeth cracking ‘til they splinter far back in her jaw, the dagger in her heart shifting deeper into the muscle with each hacking cough. She runs her fingers over memories of battle, over tender skin of women à Louisiane, Ouidah, Dzelukoƒe, over Earth’s plates never to come together again.

words won’t come with tongue undone ke-ke-ke-ke

Erzulie Dantor

Patron of the sensual and the broken

Toujours en tort

Que la Déesse te bénisse.

 

 

I [would love to] love myself when I am laughing*…

laughing1

…but mostly I’m in a forever panic hoping no one can tell how cowardly I have become, or how ashamed I am that I haven’t listened:

[Toni]

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.

[Flora]

not a piece of wood

letting down– Cécile, Sanité, Dedée

Warrior mothers I can only imagine hurling bodies over fortified walls– war prisoners and weak soldiers alike– just hush up your whining we’re in charge now!

[Zora]

Girl, your knife is as dull as a short plank and WE ARE NOT TRAGIC, do you hear me?

***

I would love for my laugh to be a festival

To live a life in which I could say that and mean it

Beyoncé surrounded by assorted flower arrangements rubbing her rounded belly

Rihanna blowing smoke straight into the camera

Rihanna shaking white feathers and rhinestones at carnival

Rihanna at any time of day or night, frankly

***

Actually

Not anyone who is light-skinned and wealthy

I would like to be the two girls I saw on the train this morning, one with Afro puffs parted by a sharp zig zag down the middle of her head, the other with cornrows swinging past her shoulders, sharing headphones and dancing their joy onto the platform and out into the world

Or the me who hadn’t yet started to fake humility until it became a nervous tick

When I was all

Itchy frilled socks filling with dust after church, and still twirling for frame after frame of photographs

Fluffy ponytail balanced on top of my head in the only way my mother new to style my hair

 ***

Especially in these times, I realize I need to be

 [Alice]

outrageous, audacious, courageous

To write us into revolution

Ink for poison, pen tips for murder

and other kinds of delusions

***

Instead I am here

crying through rain at the bus stop at 6am

jaw twitching resistance of false exuberance by 2 in the afternoon

By 10pm, roommates have to sweep up the shreds of my sorry self

And let me tell you about how in class white girls get to be basic and then offended by that label

“And isn’t this postcolonial stuff so dense?” means “Tell me you didn’t understand the reading either because there’s no way you can be better than I am at my own game…”

“Wow I’ve read your writing about colonialism. So powerful. Here’s more work for you. I want more.”

We’re all women first, sisters even

Empire wears an adorable pink hat with lopsided ears, don’t you know?

Out here struggling over words like Emecheta and bildungsroman

and ordinarily I would not judge and dismiss others by who wields this basic language best

But

For the sake of Black baby Jesus

I’m the one who isn’t making sense?

***

[Toni]

Alright, but what did we say about distractions? 

 Listen, I’m trying, ok? I’m finally over that guy and Becky with the split ends

[All sing refrain]

Oh honey, Daavi, not this again. Men absolutely do not treat us like that, and definitely not those with knuckles of that ashy nature. I mean at least let them be moisturized.

Are you listening? Look at me! And look at you:

Expending energy in self-doubt, crawling through the Internet for words of affirmation circled by hand drawn daisies and clouds, and supply store glitter

Unthreading at the seams,

you might want to get your fraying checked out,

mended

But at least your self has more trouble to write about, right?

Tragic

*****************************************************************

*In a letter to photographer Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston said the following in reference to some photos he had taken of her, “I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” This quote is also the inspiration behind the title of an anthology of extracts from Hurston’s works edited by Alice Walker.(Go to the library and borrow that book, now. Or you know, wherever you get your reading material. Just read it!)

Image: This was taken by Lloyd  K. Sarpong, best photographer this side of Dansoman, Somerville, and everywhere in between. I needed a headshot for a journal that will be publishing my work later this year, and it turned into a whole string of pictures because “we need to catch the light” *strong side-eye.* It wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t long-suffering and sarcastic, but I actually loved how these pictures came out especially because most of them weren’t posed.

I have two stories and a personal essay coming out this year, AND your girl is going to Barbados in May for the Callaloo Writing Workshop! It feels so early in the year to  have this many exciting writing-related things to look forward to. I’m trying to put my joy in my pocket and keep on working, instead of feeling guilty for being wrapped up in personal pursuits when a lot of us are terrified of what Suntan Satan is going to do next. I keep reminding myself that everything I’m doing currently is helping me to improve my writing. As I’ve said before, my writing is the best thing I have to offer others, and I can only hope that it will be meaningful for whoever gets to read it.

Unforgettable

My undoing is brought to you by an email alert for a school I never attended– an unidentified female was found unconscious in the bushes in front of the white house with red awnings on College Ave, it is still unclear what brought her there– the campus will continue to be disrespectfully picturesque and as it has always been and the brick buildings and pathways will be the only ones to remember this apart from you, you will never be able to unwitness yourself

I will become undone in the most spectacular way, a spectacle as in you sitting and watching the pitiful show I have been putting on. You even clapped and whistled for an encore when I fell panting to the dusty wooden floor I haven’t swept in months because I have not found the strength and…everything can maintain its immaculate image if you don’t stare too closely or too long

The discomfort you are bound to feel is only for the moment, you will convince yourself how unfortunate it is that you arrived a few minutes too early, and caught the star with unlined lips and barely any lashes to speak of, such a shame you will explain away the screeching feedback from the mics and the red rims around sunken eyes: it’s fatigue, the next one will surely be better than this, surely

I am extinguishing myself with every new keystroke, my end is waiting in the fist that has temporarily uncurled to write this to you and you helped; I even tried to keep the curtain up to show the sloppy scene changes and the faulty equipment jutting a little too far out of the wings

And so am I to blame for relishing the completion of another successful deception, for imagining myself the outrageous woman I will never be in a cloche hat topped with a feather, and a coat with a fur collar impossible to ignore, a person you cannot unfeel or forget

The stage is literal, or not. It only matters that the end is public and shared with those who are guilty and unsuspecting bystanders alike. Anywhere will do as long as you are unashamed in your wails to an unrelenting super power that you want so desperately to exist

Shake the metal armrests of the chairs in the hospital lobby until they are detached, scream in the foyer of the house so loudly that the landlord will change his mind halfway down because this one is definitely not his business, roll around in the sand, tufts of dried grass and chicken droppings at the bottom of the stairs leading to the kitchen

This is the nuclear event you have secretly been waiting for

(Image: The talented Lloyd K. Sarpong who also happens to be one of my housemates. This is a “portrait of the artist” in ducky pajamas in the middle of her undoing…)

Recovery

reverse the order

It is a wonder there are any parts of myself left to write about. Take the rusty hook digging into my cheek, forcing my face into a grimace for a smile. I am the one holding it, it is this pen and workshops and operating rooms and places other sharp objects sit waiting to tear and reconstruct ugly parody of natural self. Recovery is not a destination; it is a place I keep writing myself away from

She is holding the scalpel ripping away at herself and now she has turned it on me. I am pulling further away from her and she has not noticed that her attempts at comfort and commiseration feel like the same unnecessary procedures she has had to endure. Just because our bones settle together into the same shape does not mean I want to die her sort of death

reversal of the order

is impossible. I’m writing against recovery but cannot write myself into wholeness. I speak most fluently in broken teeth spat into a hand– not mine– small strips of flesh hanging off the edges of my nail beds, splits in damaged hair pulled together too roughly. Is there anything else left to disfigure in the name of getting over and beyond…recovery will never be a destination

I have written too far away from it and everyone expects my remains as proof

reverse the order

I will still end up in ruin where I have put myself every single time, but she helped me get here and so did you

***

Rewrite after poetry workshop, spring 2017

To Wholeness

(as Michelle Cliff tried to do)

It is a wonder there are any parts of myself left to write about. Take the rusty hook digging into my cheek, forcing my face to form a grimace for a smile. I am the one holding it, it is this pen and workshops and operating rooms and places other sharp objects sit waiting to tear and reconstruct ugly parody of natural self. Recovery is not a destination; it is a place I keep writing myself away from.

My spirit mother is holding the scalpel ripping away at herself and now she has turned it on me. I am pulling further away from her and she has not noticed that her attempts at comfort and commiseration feel like the same unnecessary procedures she has had to endure. Just because our bones settle into the same shape does not mean I want to die her sort of death.

I’m writing against recovery but cannot write myself to wholeness. I speak most fluently in broken teeth spat in my hand, small strips of flesh hanging off the edges of my nail beds, splits in damaged hair pulled together too roughly. Is there anything else left to disfigure in the name of getting over and beyond–

Recovery will never be a destination. I have written too far away from it and everyone expects my remains as proof.

 

 

Not Today

I’m well aware that no-one comes to this blog searching for warm fuzzy feels, but today I’ve been thinking about my responsibility as an artist to respond to people’s pain with something they can hold onto. I’m no-one’s Audre Lorde or Ama Ata Aidoo or Nikki Giovanni,  but I also know that written words have so much power in moments when there’s nothing left to be spoken out loud. There are so many poems and works of fiction I turn to in difficult times, and they are usually free of the warm and fuzzies. There have been floods, hurricanes, wars raging on non-stop at the same relentless pace that the planet is heating up, and my writing is often not the place I choose to think about these things, at least not the writing I share here. I think it would be disingenuous to present sunshine and happy endings on a day such as this when many are visualizing a future that seems almost impossible to endure. Here’s something I started putting together during a free write session in class this evening, and finished on the train ride home.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Nina Simone today.

***

I don’t have to paint a grim wasteland of charred soil merging with a grey horizon because

we are already there

are metal gates slamming with their echo competing with people screeching as loud as they can there are foreheads stamped across the world saying Certified US Target so

this is is only ending the way it began if it is ending at all and

today the orange leaves are disrespectfully optimistic and

all that is here remains flourishing on stolen land where crude oil seeps into clear water drop by drop and

tomorrow we will all wake up tasting burning in our morning breath and

leaving smudges of ourselves on the walls we are depending on to remain upright and

bits of broken hair singed off from the rest of the tangled mass falling into the pale green liquid calling itself soup calling itself lunch and

fragments of teeth dislodging in my mouth starting from the ones I should have pulled out from once toughening gums turning into pudding sliding down my throat from dessert I didn’t want

to have to leave I wasn’t ready but she was busy and I was already enough of a nuisance making this all about myself and

I haven’t learnt to display my chaos in front of people I care about so here I am hoping strangers will stop for once and notice

the man sitting on the corner coloring line drawings of pineapples and other things I can’t explain

why the woman is hopping on one leg playing a pop song on her violin on the train station platform in her yellow sweater with black polka dots today

of all days she has spilling around her feet her own strobe lights

up in the park and out on the streets because no one wants this

advertisement is yelling at me “your life is worth living” and I want to know how you know this

is only ending the way it began and

I may go with it

A Kind of Woman

She, the kind of woman who curses around other people’s children and smiles and sticks her tongue out when they tug their innocent ones away from her evil. A Sula kind of woman, collarbones jutting out threats yet to be spoken, squinting eyes and trusting of no one­– you thought you were special– the daughter that slipped through Mama Day’s hands so she could cradle the dreams of others, nurse them to health, hand them cups of punch, and candles, never got the chance to be the child that went astray, brought shame to the steps of the silver trailer

She, torturing sleepless souls she doesn’t plan to love, you the woman she left behind in Miami in the small house with yellow walls and white metal curling around the windows, veins in a vanilla-scented neck pulsing in fruitless craving for the kind of woman who never looks back– she hasn’t called in months but her hair is still knotted around your hairbrush bristles

The kind of woman who has ground up any pride you thought you had and sprinkled the powder first over her right shoulder, then over the left, she has walked away wearing your possibility of future love around her neck held high, metal pendant heating the thin skin stretched across her breast bone, she is the kind of menace you were warned to avoid and now you pay

Safe House

There is no home to go to. Where do you think you’re going? Right now you are living in the Western Hemisphere regional branch of a corporation that built itself up on the bodies of people who looked very much like you who were snatched at night, who were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, who learnt to endure because there was no other option. The right side of the sea for you is a place where the same monster breathes down your neck; it’s breath just stinks a little differently.

But there, your 4×4 smells like abroad. It is pristine and you can yell at the driver for leaving oily fingerprints on the steering wheel covered in beige leather just like the rest of the car interior. And you can use that car to roll over the hands and feet of the people on crutches and in wheelchairs reaching to your windows misted over from the condensation of the cold AC meeting the hot glass. You can toss a few coins to the children grabbing at the pockets of your designer jeans as you exit the club, and maybe you’ll donate last year’s clothes to an orphanage knowing that you’ve done your civic duty.

And there you are safe, and the police yes sah and yes madam to your slippery accent and their giant rifles might as well be water guns because they would never dream of turning them on a big somebody like you. There you are safe, and blackness is only remarked upon when your grandma complains you have stayed out in the sun too long, or when the finest girl in the class is the shade of the inside of the palm you will use to try and get a feel of her wavy hair, or when the waiter is rude to you at a luxury resort full of white people turning red in the sun and you will shout at him, spit flying and veins threatening to explode: “Heh do you know who I am???”

Back home you are safe, and you are not a try-too-hard laughing a little louder and sharper because you don’t want to kill the vibe when your white friends are at a house party singing along in unison: “at least a nigger nigger rich” and making sure you hear the R at the end. You will roll that ‘r’ onto the ends of words like “wadur,” and insert them unnecessarily in words like Sakumono– you are safe.

But you don’t know that now you are living in the West African Headquarters of Keeping up Appearances. Your parents will list all your Latin honors when you shuffle into the living room after rolling out of bed at 1pm on a Tuesday and you will threaten to slap the house help for burning a hole through your silk shirt. Or maybe you won’t even speak to her except for a curt “Thank you” with the ends clipped off, at least everything is dignified you see. She has a uniform and has been working for your family for years, and maybe she has kids in the village somewhere but you really don’t know or care, and you definitely didn’t see her crying in the pantry after your father denied her permission to go home and attend to some sick relative.

You are safe, and the driver will warn you to avert your eyes when the neighborhood people are about to burn an armed robber with some old tires and kerosene and you will shake your head and kiss your teeth, why do these people always have to resort to such behavior? And you will flinch when the front pages of Saturday tabloids are covered with the image of dead bodies of people who were only guilty of loving each other in a way that your parents’ Bible does not permit and you know it’s wrong but Ghana is safe, who asked them to display their love in public­–

Now you are safe and you don’t have to let the white girl get away with anything and everything because she’ll cry if you try to point out her privilege– you are in a dive bar and all her friends are hitting you with drunken, slow punches and you know if you don’t leave soon, you won’t be safe because you will definitely be painted as the aggressor and the police will ensure that you don’t make it to the next morning. But now you are safe and this white girl is different and she cares about Africa’s development with a big ‘D’ and she loves black people, until she has a black daughter she is terrified and envious of and will drag a fine toothed comb without water or coconut oil through the same curls you used to admire on the girl that sat in front of you in class. But you are all safe–

And you will wrinkle your nose when the drains are too ripe and there are parts of the city you will never see. The tires of your car cannot roll over un-tarred roads, but they have built in treads for crushing the backs of the people who have been bought and sold, who are still being bought and sold, so you can sit over drinks on Friday night and celebrate how far hard work has brought you.

And you are safe because on your way home the policeman will wave you past the checkpoint with a flash of the torch and his teeth, even though you both know your “something small for the weekend” is what allowed him to ignore your expired license and the Jack Daniels mist hanging around your head. There you are safe, because the only way you will become a hashtag is if you become a local celebrity known for taking girls on dates with the intention of raping them or if you develop an app that is only useful to tourists looking for a good time and Ghanaians who have data bundles and iPhones manufactured wherever it’s cheapest. And the only slur you will know is the average Ghanaian because you are definitely not average you are special and you are safe.