Thursday morning. Jill left the house early for a few days of work and work-related travel; Shiv, who seems to be in some sort of extended toddler/teenager growth spurt, was sleeping in—past 8:00 am, even. Normally, this would be a boon to me, time to get writing done in a quiet house, except: the news. The heart-rending, live-videoed, goddamn-not-again news.
It’s the most fucked up sense of deja vu, to feel like we’ve done this all before. There’s even a procedure: I obsessively follow Twitter, sign out of Facebook before I say something I’ll regret, follow links and re-tweet and weep because I let myself forget again; I let myself settle comfortably back into a life that doesn’t have to confront the world’s brokenness every day.
On my 32nd birthday, Jill & I came home from dinner to discover that a grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. About a week after that, a grand jury in New York decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner. On my 33rd birthday, Chicago PD released the dash-cam video of seventeen year-old Laquan McDonald being shot sixteen times. On December 28th of this past year, the first day of Winter Break that I had set aside to work on my book proposal, a grand jury in Ohio decided not to indict the officer who killed twelve year-old Tamir Rice, round-faced and big for his age, like my son, whose growth percentiles are currently listed at “ > 99%.”
I like to think that, were I not Shiv’s parent, I would still be outraged, paying attention, learning, reading, altering my perceptions and perspective, listening to people who know much better than I do about what it’s like—what it’s been like and continues to be like—to be Black in America. I like to think that, but I can’t guarantee it.
It’s a futile thought experiment, in any case; not only is it impossible to separate who I am now with the fact of my son’s existence, and his Blackness, it would only be an attempt to redeem my hypothetical self, which serves nothing but my own ego. I am not going to be useful to him if I’m busy trying to look good. There is way too much at stake.
He doesn’t know yet. I am writing this at what I feel fairly certain is the end of his unawareness of the Truth About Things; he turns four in nine days and it’s coming. He will see something, or hear something, or experience something, and he will ask. He’s done it already with death and how babies get made, and it seemed right to follow his lead on those particular topics. This, this feels like something else altogether—because it isn’t some necessary “fact of life,” but rather a fact of life as we know it. As we have made it.
There’s been no colorblindness about his upbringing; we have no patience for that bullshit. Not to mention, kids figure it out on their own, regardless of whatever pasty Kumbaya diet you feed them. As soon as he could talk, Shiv began noting the different shades of members of his family, characters in books, strangers out in the world, often gravitating toward people who looked like him. Jill had a tennis match on a few weeks ago (she’s a rabid Serena fan, or worshipper, I should say) and it was Shiv’s first time watching the game. It’s not a simple game to explain to an almost four year-old, but when it came down to it, he really just wanted to know one thing: “Did the Black one win?” But oh no, kids definitely don’t see color!
Race is one thing. I’m not at all sure how to talk to a four-year-old about racism. But I know that I’ll have to. Neither Jill nor I believe in sugar-coating the truth; we don’t use euphemisms for body parts, and we won’t allow our own dread to dictate the terms of our conversations with him. To do so would not serve or honor him. We will do what we do what we try to do in all aspects of our parenting; we will tell him the truth, in whatever way we can figure out how to say it aloud, to his face. He has to hear it from us, and that fucking breaks my heart.
My heart breaks not only for my boy, but for all of the boys, and girls, for the parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and siblings who have to talk them through the truth that many of us are able to spend our lives avoiding. For the terror that people are living through. For the children who’ve lost parents. For the parents who’ve lost children. For all of us; those of us who believe this is not about us, and those of us who do.
For some time now, I have turned to listing “What I Know For Certain” as a source of comfort and healing. It was a tactic I first used after my father died, back when grief felt personal and specific, but it still works. Only now, the list is a lot shorter than it used to be. And basically everything on it is restating one thing: love. Love is all I know for certain.
I love all of the people I know (and some people I only know via the screen) who send messages of powerful solidarity, who use their privilege for good, who are asking all of the right questions, who read, who are smart, who want to be better, who make me better. I love my mom, who is as tough as she is generous, who isn’t on any social media but uses the internet to great effect and is proof that you can be almost seventy, always learning, and willing to break your worldview wide open. I love my friends Lisa & Christian, who invited me and Shiv out to the farm on Thursday, in case we wanted to “pet goats and be with people.” Why yes, yes we did.
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
place that you belong to though it is not yours,
for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
and the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
in the trees in the silence of the fisherman
and the heron, and the trees that keep the land
they stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
and how to be here with them. By this knowledge
make the sense you need to make. By it stand
in the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
before they had heard a radio. Speak
publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
from the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
No place at last is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
-Wendell Berry, “2007, VI”
Because poems aren’t only for April, I bring you another poetry guest post, this one from brilliant poet Arianne Zwartjes. Ari and I earned our MFAs together; she is single-handedly responsible for me not completely losing my mind after my father died. I am so very lucky to call her my friend.
The poet I first fell in love with was Langston Hughes. It was eighth grade. I was in Mr. D’s history class, not my favorite class, partially because it was dry and involved memorizing lots of war-related dates, and partially because he was accused of being overly interested in his female students. But. In that terrible eighth-grade public-school history textbook, someone in the authorship pool had mercifully thrown in a poem. And the poem was this.
THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I was captivated. I loved his language: simple, clear, a bit mournful, and lyrically beautiful. It made me feel things I couldn’t put into words. I had written a few poems before but never experienced what it is to fall in love, really in love, with a poem you encounter.
This was all back in the day when, given our textbooks at the beginning of each school year, we would take them home and make brown paper covers out of grocery bags—do public school students still do that?—and then decorate them. I can still picture my enthusiastically-handwritten copy of Hughes’ poem in large letters on the brown-paper cover of that text, where I read and re-read it each day as I sat in class.
I soon found a book of his selected poems, which I still have to this day, full of poems more racially outspoken than—unsurprisingly—the one chosen for that history textbook. I was drawn by his refusal, in the words of Poets.org, “to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America,” a refusal to “turn inward, [to write] obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever-decreasing audience of readers,” as so many other poets of his time were doing. The book is dog-eared, a few pages stained pink from some disaster I don’t remember, others water-marked and thumb-printed. Well-loved.
An interesting twist is that this year I taught his poems for the first time in my English class. Because my old copy was so raggedy, I ordered a new book of his poems: his entire collected works, with all the poems he’d ever published. And I discovered that that little Selected Poems book I’ve cherished all these years left something out. A big something. Langston Hughes started his career publishing poetry that spoke from and to the African-American community and their collective experience. But a decade or two in, his writing shifted: the collective experience he began to focus on was that of all workers, and of the socialist and communist revolutions happening around the world. Later in his career, he became dispirited with the targeting and marginalization he experienced while writing with this provocative political bent, and perhaps-cynically shifted back to a less-radical focus on “the black experience.” That little selected-poems volume I loved for so many years had neatly excised those more politicized decades from his writing career, as though they never existed. Not a single poem from that era, referencing workers’ rights or collective movements, could be found there.
I was surprised to find that this poet whose work I’d loved for so long—who was responsible for me going on to read the poetry of Alice Walker, and then June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Sandra Cisneros, and even, much later, going on to earn an MFA in poetry—had an entire side of his written work that I’d been completely unaware of. It was a good lesson in the redactive power of the “selected works.”
At any rate, my English classes, with students from Mexico, the Bahamas, Germany, Nigeria, Denmark, Uganda, China, Lebanon, and the US, seemed to love Hughes’ poetry; at the very least, they read it aloud with gusto, in impressive performances of Hughes’ passion. I harbor the unvoiced hope, of course, that he will do for one or two of them what he did for me so many years ago: foster an early spark of love for the vast field of diverse voices, and the appreciation of small details in the world around us, which poetry has to offer us.
After receiving her MFA in Poetry at the University of Arizona and teaching English and creative writing there for six years, Arianne Zwartjes is now in northern New Mexico serving as the director of the wilderness program at the United World College. She won the 2011 Gulf Coast prize for nonfiction, and her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, No Tell Motel, Cue, and elsewhere. The University of Iowa Press published her essay collection Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy in the fall of 2012. Her previous works include Disem(body), The Surfacing of Excess, and (Stitched) A Surface Opens: Essays.
I’ve known Dave since I was seventeen; in the intervening years, he has taught me a great deal about a lot of things, but especially about poems and paying attention. This guest post reflects so much of what I’ve learned from him and what I respect and treasure about him. –Nishta
On the bus to work, I realize I haven’t seen a single thing for fifteen minutes. Yes, yes: I have in some limited way seen the road and its yellow lines, the gray buildings lining the street, the outlines of people standing. But I haven’t really looked, not like I could, not the real kind of looking. My eyes are still asleep.
Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is an alarm, set to the highest volume. The poem describes what it is like to catch a fish. It also describes what it is like for a human being to wake from visual slumber and pay real attention to the world.
We learn that the fish is “tremendous,” that he is an ancient creature who has survived multiple attempts on his life. His eyes are shallower than a human’s, but like human eyes they can “tip” toward the light. Though he is a distinguished fish who seems to hail from a time before men, he now must breathe the “terrible oxygen” of the world.
Unlike the fish’s eyes, we do not look into the speaker’s. Rather, we look out from them– though they are nothing like a camera. They do not faithfully record the entire frame in front of them. They roam from thing to thing and pluck out a vibrant detail: not the whole fish but his “brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper.” The speaker follows these details to all the unusual places they lead. The meaning, if you want to call it that, is in how the imagination links one visual detail to another and forms a narrative of images.
“The Fish” describes what it is like to really look. Such a simple task for a poem, yet the poem isn’t simple at all. The only things that “happen” occur in the first line and the last. The rest is looking. But this looking is so consuming there is no time to pause, no time for long words. The rhythm drives forward with no room left for a stanza break–hardly enough room to finish a thought before a new line must begin. One sight leads to another, until we find all the colors have run together.
Poems do many things. One thing they do is tell us to remember to look. Perhaps what we will see is so rich and unusual that we must tell others about it. “The Fish” reminds me why I read poems on the bus: to wake my eyes for the day.
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip—
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
David Berry grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Secret City of the Cumberland Mountains. He met Nishta, a fellow Tennessean, at summer camp in 2000, and they have been friends ever since. Since 2001, he has lived in Houston, where he more or less acclimated to life on a coastal plain. Dave reads and sometimes writes poetry and is grateful to live in a city with a rich literary life.
Today I am pleased to bring you the second entry in my National Poetry Month series, from my dear, dear friend Courtney Rath. Special thanks to Lisa Seger of Blue Heron Farm for letting me use these wonderful photos. –Nishta
For a long time I thought poetry was something to be worked at and worked on, something to be studied, perhaps appreciated, but only after careful explication. Poetry was not about my life.
Until it was.
The poem that changed things for me was Galway Kinnell’s “St. Francis and the Sow.” I remember reading the fourth line, “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing,” and stopping short. “Um, no. No.” But then the next two lines, in the moment of my reading them, made something real in the world that had never been possible for me before: “sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Yes.
This poem finds its way back to me in moments when I need it most. For example, during National Poetry Month last year, I was trying out some yoga classes at a local studio. Though I’ve developed many ways to compensate for it, I am really quite shy, and newness (finding my way around new spaces, figuring out the procedures at new places, talking to new people) is often anxiety-producing for me. Before class, I was nervously wandering in the hallway reading the notices on a bulletin board when I discovered an envelope full of folded paper. It was the paper I noticed first, lovely and marbleized, folded and secured with a paper strap in a contrasting color. Inside each little paper package was a poem, offered to yogis to celebrate National Poetry Month. When I unfolded my selection, I rediscovered St. Francis.
St. Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
I have offered this poem as a gift, too, my version of paying it forward. Last fall, I taught my first class to teachers-to-be; once again, the newness of it—along with the fact that teaching teachers is what I’ve come to graduate school to prepare for and here I was doing it for the first time—was terrifying. My students were terrified, too, overwhelmed by the workload of courses and student teaching, the prospect of changing the lives of their students, and the project of discovering themselves as teachers. I offered St. Francis to them in our last night of class. To me, teaching is about helping students to see possibilities for themselves, to help them be the best version of themselves, to retell them, in words and in touch, that they are lovely.
Most days I think poems are the best teachers.
Courtney L. Rath is a former high school English teacher and current Ph.D. candidate in Education at the University of Oregon. She is currently engaged in a dissertation project that works to disrupt typical (and typically unhelpful) narratives about teaching and replace them with multifaceted stories that paint a realistic, complex picture for pre-service teachers. When she’s not grappling with articles on theoretical physics and posthumanism, Courtney spends her time cooking, knitting, and dancing. She lives with her husband John and their dachshund Tillie in Eugene.