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.
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
Patron of the sensual and the broken
Toujours en tort
Que la Déesse te bénisse.
Image: 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.
Note from the future (5/13/2020): At the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, I submitted this poem for the City of Boston Poetry Program and I was lucky enough to be among the selected writers. In place of the in-person display and reading that was meant to be on the other side of “Congratulations,” we had a lovely, inter-generational, mood-lifting virtual event, which you can watch here. Below is the edited version I submitted for the contest.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt in my poetry workshop this semester, it’s that I’m not a poet. I spend most of my time feeling belated embarrassment for all the poetry-related opportunities I’ve applied to, or that I’ve even dared to submit poetry for publication at all. There are different sorts of writing I do well, and I’m not sure poetry is one of them. I solemnly swear that I’m not tying to force positive comments out of you, I’m just stating what I feel to be true.
Still, I’m swerving out of my lane momentarily and I might as well do it wholeheartedly. Here’s a work in progress I wrote for my class. It’s a response to one of favorite poems from Lucille Clifton, “what the mirror said,” second only to “won’t you celebrate with me” also by Clifton.
you a wonder.
you a city
of a woman.” (“what the mirror said,” Lucille Clifton)
tear up the skyline
fix it to my belt loop and pull alongside me
twist telephone wires into hair ribbons
string trucks for earrings– helpless drivers
dangling from windows screaming terror–
drown panicked car horns in the plenty of my laugh
root firm legs on river bank one side and deep valley one side
snap tree trunks halfway
clean my teeth with the branches
darken lashes with highway tar not yet dry
satisfy thirst on lake water and sun’s rays
Am splendid some person
hail glory or perish
My dear friend Breauna printed out a copy of this poem and left it in my mailbox on-campus after I had a particularly rough week, and I have since memorized and retweeted it more times than I can remember. Apart from Breauna herself, a few other supportive friends, faculty and staff at my school, this poem is one of the only things keeping me focused on that glorious day when I can dance across the graduation stage, because “everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.” (If you think this statement is melodramatic, I don’t blame you. You must be new here 🙂 )
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
I have revealed a lot of things on this blog that are deeply personal, and not always in a way that is very obvious unless you happen to know the real life situations I make reference to in my own roundabout way. These days I feel as though I’m angry all the time, but have been hesitant to express my anger unless it has to do with larger issues of which I am but a small piece: racial inequality, gender-based violence, among many other things. What will my writing become if I’m only ever doing it with some bigger picture in mind? This blog, although public, is still my own space to do what I want. Today “what I want” includes getting out some of this anger before it eats me up from the inside, more than it has done already. You may see it as attention-seeking or unnecessary, but what will my writing become if I can’t sometimes use it as therapy and catharsis for myself?
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” -Anne Lamott
Consider this a found poem, a collection of random trash I stepped on when I stumbled out of bed at 5:08 this morning.
a seemingly harmless follow up message to make sure you noticed me the way I noticed you: Great meeting you yesterday.
arrogance masquerading as playful banter: Here are all the reasons you should be impressed by me.
false self-deprecation and all the reasons I’m impressed by you: I have my money on you getting us a NYT bestseller.
a few “tone-deaf” statements I may or may not believe fully just to provoke you: Feminism still thrives on emotion and faux outrage.
casual suggestion of another in-person meeting: I’m happy to take payment in a form of coffee or some cocktail.
appearing to enjoy your sarcasm and jabs at my ego: After the multiple slights, I must have a weird need to be maltreated. Now do your worst, go for it. I quickly learned to stow my heart away when dealing with you
connection based on a shared language and culture: The curse of millennial Ewes.
this is the part where cheesy pick up lines give way to requests for you to share more of yourself with me: Give me a glimpse into “Vulnerable you.”
this is the part where you should have heeded the warning, anyone who disparages your sisters to flatter you is not worth your time: The yous of this town are like an eclipse. A rarity. Refreshing.
this is the part where you really should have turned back, the part that spoke the future almost word for word: I’m very calculating. But not that kind of calculating. Spontaneity is a big part of my MO.
absurd tantrum, complete with tears, when I find out your life plans are not quaint enough to fit into my own: You watched me change plans and get rid of lingering situations! If I had known you weren’t coming back things would have been different.
arrogance exposing itself with no reservations: I think too highly of myself to be treated this way.
the warning signs are much closer together now that the novelty has worn off, now that you have waited up with no idea where I am, when facts and fiction swirl together in a cloud of smoke: I was working on an urgent project all night. I know I should’ve called. You’re taking this really well. You’re NOT dealing with workaholic me so well. Times and seasons babe. There are times when I’m consumed by work and the time zone difference isn’t helpful.
red flags are slapping you in the face and you still can’t see that you are being made to feel like demanding I take responsibility for my actions is actually emotional instability: I’m sorry you feel that way. Jumping to conclusions with very little context isn’t going to help. None of this played out the way I had imagined it.
unfortunately I thought I could get away with making you the understudy for someone else’s permanence.
It’s 6:13 now and I’m still trying to scrape the remnants of this debris from the soles of my feet.
I may have to take the veins from the side of your neck, empty out the contents and use them for ink to write back to you.
I’m one forced smile away from spitting in your face.
Inaccessible. Grant me access to your work. Grant me access to yourself. Grant me access I’m entitled to access grant me access to what I’m entitled to–
Access means your lifeless hands are attracted to the warm breath lingering around my half-open mouth. You want to be able to press down unhindered, until I cough and struggle and grow still.
I’m one forced smile away from spitting in your face, one clenched fist away from leaving the chipped corners of my own nails buried in the skin on my arms.
And you…are not safe just because what I meant to say passed over your head and dumped a bucket of seawater over your shoulders. You are straining against the complicated, non-linear, who do you think you are to do this, other writers do this well but who do you think you are to do something this complicated, non-linear lines of prose and verse I am wrapping around your upper arms to interrupt your blood flow.
You are broiling in the steam of your frustration, how dare you I demand access how dare you have no right to deny me what has always been mine.
This is disjointed and nonsensical, try again.
Again I will tell you have no idea what any of this means because my expanse is too wide to fold into the narrow channel of your understanding again I will tell you are not entitled to any more than I am willing to give again…
(Image: Taken by the loveliest of lovelies, Claytia Gonsalves, at the National Museuem of African Art in DC. Spring 2015.)
[Initial thoughts from 2:40am, essay for school abandoned hours ago in favor of watching and rewinding Lemonade and taking notes feverishly]
I’ve seen a few attempts at “Violence isn’t the answer” responses to Rihanna’s latest music video for her song “Needed Me,” similar to the critiques of her videos for “BBHMM” and “Man Down.” I won’t be the least bit surprised if the same cries for “why don’t we hold hands and sing kumabaya instead of protesting loudly and hurting each other” come from the white feminist camp and the coalition of all people who can’t let black women celebrate themselves after Beyoncé’s hour-long history lesson/poetry reading/letter to every ex/African diaspora vibes epic “Lemonade.” Visuals and lyrics like what these women have given us leave one feeling incredibly badass for lack of a more literary term. Actually, on this blog, badass is a perfectly acceptable term. Canonical, even. (Not exactly the right use for the word “canonical,” but I make the rules around here.) I’m readying my eye rolls for the next article I see that tries to condemn media that “glorifies” violence, as if black women grabbing the barrel of the gun and turning it outward is a new phenomenon.
I don’t imagine that the women in the Haitian revolution sat quietly at home with their hands resting in their laps waiting for the men to return, or that during the rebellions led by enslaved people all over the Americas the women just remained on standby with warm cloths for their husbands’ wounds. There were entire armies of women in Dahomey who were renowned for their military prowess, and in Ghana Yaa Asantewaa didn’t just say: “Ok oooh, I hear. Let’s not fight. We can’t beat them anyway.” Musicians, and artists in general, may not be picking up real guns and overturning oppressive government systems themselves, but they are inspiring all those watching to lead rebellions in their own fields, throwing away the fear of being perceived as being too aggressive and chewing and swallowing the bit of forced humility we have been clenching between our teeth for years.
One can argue that we have a legitimate problem of making violence appear sexy and glamorous in film, music and video games etc targeted at young people, but when I see black women swinging baseball bats and shooting no-good men in the back of a strip club, I’m not compelled to go and pick up my longest knife and hurt the next person that tries to hurt me, and I don’t think that’s the message these artists are trying to send. It’s very convenient to forget that a huge component of the colonial project was brutal violence and suppression, bending people -body and soul- to submit to the authority of the master arbitrarily justified by his supposed superiority. Black women continue to face violence at the hands of the police, militant groups, relatives, romantic partners, and strangers who feel threatened by women’s queerness and trans identity. Do not ask us to “rise above” and sway softly to hymns and quiet songs for peace when our art provides us the perfect space to spit back the violence inherited as an unshakeable birthright.
My badass and my revolution looks like writing late into the night to make sure no one cuts of my tongue and my fingers, excusing their actions with a dismissive shrug. Zora Neale Hurston put it best when she said, “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” These portrayals of black women blowing gunpowder in the face of respectability and fighting for the right to exist unapologetically are not new. You just forgot, and we’re here to remind you.
Razors for Breakfast
This isn’t something new I have just added to my diet. Neither is it a trend, nor another shortcut to the kind of beauty that mocks and berates those who don’t possess it, one that taunts from screens that sting tired eyes with their glow late at night. My jaws have been galvanized for this very purpose, teeth fixed in place like steel bolts in the neck of a crossbow, a roar for a voice like a high-powered engine.
I have always kept razors in my mouth, turning them over and over with my tongue, but long before me, there were women picking thorns out of their palms, bringing back royal heads wrapped in a tattered tricolore. They soaked gunpowder in hot water and rubbed it into aching muscles, and used it to wash their feet crusted over with mud and the crushed souls of the enemy. These women dragged timid men to war and trampled the pages of a history that forgot their names, their strides drumming up the same dust that will eventually settle on the books I will write and leave behind.
This isn’t something new I’ve recently learnt to do. Neither a twisted party trick, nor an illusion to make you squirm and wonder how I made it look so effortless. The blood dripping from the point of my chin onto my chest is yours and not mine, theirs and not ours. It is the last remaining hint that we once sliced them in half and licked away the evidence. Today I had razors for breakfast, and the taste of victory still lingers on my lips.
The work of one of my favorite poets, Warsan Shire, serves as a beautiful backdrop for Lemonade. Here is my favorite quote from her. I’m sure I’ve posted it on this blog before, but I still love it just as much, so here you go!
“If you think I’ll be the dark sky so you can be the star, well the sky is vast and have you seen the sky in the morning? Have you seen how it looks against the sun? I’ll swallow you whole.” -Warsan Shire
Another favorite quote of mine:
“No, I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” -Zora Neale Hurston
I had a really weird idea and I’m not sure I’ve articulated it in the way I wanted it. But it’s Monday, so here’s another work in progress 🙂
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Feels like tears pooling between your face and your pillow, settling in the heat of your right ear
Sounds like why did you say the exact opposite of what you meant
Is basically like wow you’re so pathetic, it really isn’t that big of a deal says inner voice
If only you would let me show you
Famous last words
I’m years behind, but I finally watched an Oversimplification of her Beauty (written and directed by Terrence Nance) after missing all the showings they had in obscure theaters around DC one summer I was there. Very inspiring, and also a little depressing as most of my inspirations often are. I’m still trying to figure out how to write poetry that’s somewhat tolerable, that’s actually good…
Crumpled and tossed, little white flowers decorating the small waste basket in the corner.
I sat in a crumpled heap of bones and tissue and sighs in the same corner where I just- sat.
Punching bag stuffed with 100% prime softer than soft, guaranteed to absorb knuckle bleeds and tears of frustration.
Disclaimer: not equipped to withstand the harder knocks; prior preparation and reinforcement is required in order to assure minimal damage.
I picked at the frayed ends of my spirit to pass the time, knowing such tears could not be mended and that it was only a matter of time before the rips cut through to the very end, or beginning- the origin and terminus of my life cycle. Worn down and transparent, like all my efforts to stop pipe leaks with silk scarfs and promises.
We are grateful for the services rendered, but they are no longer needed at this time. No, there is no need for explanation or clarification. We are sure the product has served it’s purpose in the way it was designed to do.