So far, pockets are good
for carrying bits of money
and dead spiders in tissue
to look up who they are. I wish
I could take puddles with me
to the diner and have my eggs
sunny side up with old rain. The best
I can do is anoint my forehead
with yesterday’s blessing and try
to hear wind sleeping in the cedars
before I go. Instead I hear the river
sleep-walking to the sea. What else
can’t I carry? Lightning, in or out
of a bottle is two different beasts,
and both horses and hours
sleep in the nude and are too wild
to be possessed. I’ll do the crossword
and if I’m lucky, seven down
will be an infinitely lettered word
for “the green that is the color
of desire.” I would never come
to anyone’s dream
or wake empty handed, even if all
my hands carried were my hands.
When my body had forgotten its purpose,
when it just hung off my brainstem like a whipped mule.
When my hands only wrote. When my teeth only ate.
When my ass sat, my eyes read, when my reflexes
were answers to questions we all already knew.
Remember how it was then that you slid your hand
into me, a fork in the electric toaster of my body. Jesus,
where did all these sparks come from? Where was all
this heat? Remember what this mouth did last night?
And still, this morning I answer the phone like normal,
still I drink an hour’s worth of strong coffee. And now
I file. And now I send an email. And remember how
my lungs filled with all that everything? Remember
how my heart was an animal you released from its cage?
Remember how we unhinged? Remember all the names
our bodies called each other? Remember how afterwards,
the steam rose from us like a pair of ghosts?
"Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven devils had been cast out" —Luke 8:2.
The first was that I was very busy.
The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.
The third — I worried.
The fourth — envy, disguised as compassion.
The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid,
The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The mosquito too — its face. And the ant — its bifurcated body.
Ok the first was that I was so busy.
The second that I might make the wrong choice,
because I had decided to take that plane that day,
that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early
and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street
the house would blow up.
The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer
of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing.
The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living
The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I
touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I
to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.
The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that
was alive and I couldn’t stand it,
I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word — cheesecloth —
to breath through that would trap it — whatever was inside everyone else that
entered me when I breathed in
No. That was the first one.
The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened?
How had our lives gotten like this?
The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it — distinct, separate
from me in a bowl or on a plate.
Ok. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list.
The second was that the laundry was never finally done.
The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did.
And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was
The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong
The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.
The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.
The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying—her mouth wrenched into an O so as to take in as much air… The sound she made — the gurgling sound — so loud we had to speak louder to hear each other over it.
And that I couldn’t stop hearing it—years later—
grocery shopping, crossing the street —
No, not the sound — it was her body’s hunger
—what our mother had hidden all her life.
For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots,
the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.
The underneath —that was the first devil.
It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you — if I told you — would understand any of this —
Translated from the Dutch by Marijn Rombouts
I want you to see through my intentions
I want you to know the price of desire
the scale of things, I want you to understand
why they overestimate the kindness
I want to hear you say:
"everything just serves to win
everything is tactic; we all
I want them to keep our secret
how we chase each other silently like hunters
I want us to be willing to put our souls at stake
like we insert a coin in a slot machine
I want to go back in time to when I still learned from my dreams
I want to have the marks I left on your skin back
I want to able to feel you with my eyes in the dark
trace with my nails were you have been
I want your hands to wrap me in cool sheets
I want to see if your side differs from mine
I want you to be stronger towards the end
I want to give you the idea that you are winning
I want you to feel a foundling without me
an eccentric in the void, I want to see you tremble
in the cold, I want you sweating, rubbed warm
I want you rabid, praying for repentance
I want you to be able to read my mind
I want you to be able to touch my heart
or the fatal spot, I do not care
who causes the wounds, I do not care
how many there are, I just want to take an interest
in what dominates me. I want to be in a beautiful place
when I die. I want to be able to drown in the Red Sea
injure myself on a poisonous coral, wash up
on a snow white beach, with your taste still
on my lips. I don’t want to destroy you
I wouldn’t know how. If only I could say:
I will forget you, if only I could say:
I’ll leave you alone
but I can not lie
I always think of you, truly
I will forever think of you
Could I even tell how it was,
his hip on mine against the wall, my hands
shaking, had I ever touched him that
way in some other life, was his skin
always so hot to the touch, the shirt
I shoved my hands under;
Could I even touch him how he was,
shaking, my hand against the hot wall
of his hip, had I been
his shirt in some other life, was I always
so hot to the touch like something
he would shove against;
Could I tell him to make it even,
my hip shoved against the wall
of his hands, shaking, had I always
been so hot in another life to tell
how it was, to be the skin
under his touch;
Could I even tell his hip from my hand,
shaking, had he ever
touched me in some
other life, was his shirt always a wall
against my hand, could he
shove my under
I used to buy graph paper, and color in the squares, one by one.
I knew a man who suicided his vision by staring into the sun.
There are twenty-seven oranges and thirteen honeybees
Pollinating beneath that tree.
Dear wife, don’t fall asleep. There are only seven traffic lights
And four stop signs between you and me.
1964: Eight men, among them Nelson Mandela, with their fists raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison car, leave the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, having been sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiracy, sabotage and treason (source)
Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of his trial on charges of sabotage, Supreme court of South Africa, Pretoria, April 20 1964 (source):
I am the first accused. I hold a bachelor’s degree in arts and practised as an attorney in Johannesburg for a number of years in partnership with Oliver Tambo. I am a convicted prisoner serving five years for leaving the country without a permit and for inciting people to go on strike at the end of May 1961. …
Some of the things so far told to the court are true and some are untrue. I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.
I admit immediately that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. … I, and the others who started the organisation, felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law.
We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence. …
We of the ANC had always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart. But the hard facts were that 50 years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights. By this time violence had, in fact, become a feature of the South African political scene.
There had been violence in 1957 when the women of Zeerust were ordered to carry passes; there was violence in 1958 with the enforcement of cattle culling in Sekhukhuneland; there was violence in 1959 when the people of Cato Manor protested against pass raids; there was violence in 1960 when the government attempted to impose Bantu authorities in Pondoland. Each disturbance pointed to the inevitable growth among Africans of the belief that violence was the only way out - it showed that a government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it.
I came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic to continue preaching peace and non-violence. This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did. …
Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.
This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
not before and after, but before and now
May 2012, and today. So happy leaving the house in a dress that fits (and a bra that fits, LOL)! I picked up a couple of dresses from my tailor yesterday, she did such a good job. This year I’ve been eating a balanced diet but not dieting (I’m never going to diet ever again), acting as my own personal trainer and doing a lot of exercise including lifting a lot of weights, and working through trauma. Happy also to report that after 10 years of chronic pain due to a neck injury, I am not in debilitating pain every day any more, and getting far less migraines. The secret was getting strong! At this point I care more about working towards deadlifting my own body weight than I do about reaching a goal weight. Hopefully I will reach both goals in the first quarter of next year.
for Trayvon Martin
”Slaves were branded according to the mark of the purchaser at the Tree of Forgetting. The name of the place, however, stems from the ritual of turning slaves around the tree to reinforce forgetfulness of their homes. Men were walked around the tree nine times, and women seven times.” — “Visiting Ouidah,” The Ouidah Museum of History
Meet me on the plantation steps. It’s okay. Baggy jeans. A hoodie. Wear whatever you want. I’ll open the door. I will let you in.
Welcome to Smithfield.
You can request the slave tour.
This is not the slave tour.
This is not the regular tour.
I don’t know what this is.
The foyer, just a fancy word for entry hall—you know how people do. These floors and walls, tenant farmers let the chickens in.
She is the great, great, gran-something of someone who matters, a niece, I think.
She willed us this house. She’s very important. She saved us from chickens.
And him. This wood-framed mirror from Ireland or Scotland, or somewhere else, is a surviving piece. See the carved heart and arrow at top. The mirror is part of a pair, the other lost, maybe to tenant farmers, maybe to chickens. But him, his name, the one who brought the mirror from Ireland, or Scotland, or somewhere else, he is very important, like the heart and arrow whose story I also can’t remember. I’m sorry.
You should know from the jump: I’m not a very good tour guide. I mean, Interpreter. That’s what they call us.
This is the sitting room. Important people sat here, drank tea, read books. These are surviving books. None of these chairs are surviving. In the next room, the bedroom, we’ll see a surviving chair, a rocking chair made by a slave, a surviving bed, a surviving fireplace, and upstairs a surviving doll bed made by a slave of this man for this man’s child. The doll in the doll bed might be surviving, but probably not. These glass windows—all surviving. The doll baby is White. The fruit is fake.
Each time/the bowl of strawberries/red and wet/to put one on my tongue.
I admire the strawberries. I appreciate their role on this tour. Let’s be honest, I’m someone who lusts after fake fruit, as long as it looks real.
This painting. We believe he resembles the father, or maybe it’s the one in the dining room. It doesn’t matter. They’re all hanging miscreants, just another word for asshole. Let’s switch the paintings. Let’s get at them with black Sharpies. Let’s make maps of their faces, faces of their maps. The maps are downstairs in the museum store.
Here is the wife. Her slob of a husband died first. She never remarried. At least
thirty years without sex. This may explain the look of disappointment, but we can’t forget the twelve or thirteen children, the two or three children dead, the dead husband, a plantation to run, all those slaves, living inside the gnawing of knowing none of this is hers. It’s not in the diaries, or any papers, but we can make guesses. We can interpret.
The rocking chair made by the slave I already mentioned—we’ll take it with us. I’m sure it will fit through the surviving front doors. Notice the surviving bed and the surviving fireplace. The paint is a special blue, maybe Prussian, maybe something else. I can’t remember. The truth: I don’t care about paint. The architecture makes me nauseous, the balustrade gives me panic attacks, and the window casings give me hives. I threw up in the kitchen room downstairs, in the surviving fireplace, in the cast iron pot, which is not surviving.
Let me tell you a story:
Othello and Thomas Fraction are two whole men, brothers and slaves. They join the Union army, the 40th U.S. Colored Troops.
You can leave, but don’t you ever return, says their owner.
Their mother remains in Virginia. Their mother remains three fifths of a person. The Fractions are good whole sons. The war is over. They return to their mother, in uniform. They laugh and tell jokes. They hug and kiss their sister, Virginia.
Someone runs and tells the owner who is praying in church: your ex-slaves, come quick. The owner stops praying. A gunfight ensues. I’m sorry. I should’ve warned you: in this story, no one is shot.
A Fraction breaks his ankle, Othello or Thomas. Someone calls for police. You know this story. They throw the Fractions in jail. Wait, there’s more.
A White man who is also a Quaker helps the Fractions sue. They win what they can—lost wages, defamation of character. No, I don’t know how long they were in jail. One of them leaves Virginia, the state. They both leave their mother and sister. Trust me, this is a happy story.
I don’t know what happened to Virginia, their sister, not the state. One is a body of a land, the other a body. The distinction matters.
This is the dining room. I don’t care about the china either, although it is pretty. It might be surviving. It might not. The china cabinet was probably made by a slave. It’s more than likely. It will be more difficult to carry, but we’ll do what we can to get it through the surviving front doors. Remind me not to forget the surviving doll bed, the one upstairs, the one made by a slave.
And this is a painting of William, one of the hanging miscreants. I don’t want to tell you this story, but here it is:
The slave trade has been outlawed since 1811. This rule doesn’t apply to William, a man who breaks arms and legs if you don’t vote for his uncle.
It’s after the war. William, who prefers strong drink, is done with soldiering. He buys a ship, imports slaves, makes lots of money.
William has been dirtying his hands in the islands. He sails home to Virginia. On his ship, 300 seasoned slaves. William is feeling lucky, but there’s a blockade—nowhere to dock his illegal ship. The ship sits for a month off the coast of Norfolk. No harbor. No rest. Nowhere to go.
Some jumped overboard. Some ate their tongues. Some hung onto lovers, their desire, broken. We don’t know this for sure. We can imagine. We can interpret. In the end, only thirty. Out of 300, only thirty.
If we subtract thirty from 300, divide that by three fifths, and/or divide 300 by three fifths, and/or divide 30 by three fifths what remains?
Sometime before, or after, or during, or between the ship with the 300 now thirty slaves, William decides no more. William, the miscreant, the reluctant soldier, the boozer, the breaker of arms and legs, the slaver has seen enough swallowed tongues. He moves to Louisville. He sells thoroughbreds instead. One is a horse, the other is not. Still, you can bridle both.
This is the kitchen: baskets, dried herbs, cast iron pots, pans, and Sucky. Sucky is a mannequin, her stocking-ed face, faceless. This is the metal rod used to beat bread. It was not used to beat Sucky. We get this question a lot, mostly from boys, but also from girls. We have no idea where Sucky came from. We imagine someone picked her up at Sears, or perhaps she was donated. See her name on the slave registry. The registry lives in the office upstairs. We’re not allowed to hang it next to the miscreants. It’ll be easy to carry through the surviving front doors.
Wait. Here it is:
Because New Smyrna Beach is 91 percent White.
Because I’m only forty minutes from where he shot you.
Because on your day I ate fried scallops, drank wine, tucked your name under my greasy napkin, explained to my job how productive I was this year. This year, every day you were dead.
Because I didn’t want to know how close you were until after February 26th.
Because New Orleans, New York, Blacksburg, L.A., Detroit, Oakland.
Because Sanford is just another city, and Florida, just another state sitting on a giant sinkhole.
Because I’ll drive two hours to Fort Pierce just to kneel on Zora’s grave.
Because old death is easier than new death.
Because your year old death hangs fresh with other deaths I know, old and new: my father, Oscar Grant, Troy Davis. Two died violent, one didn’t. All died Black. I could go on, and on.
Because I want to walk into the Atlantic in a white dress, my face painted funereal white, drag your body back to sea.
Because your death won’t let me sleep.
So I’ve brought you here, to this plantation. Crazy, right?
What kind of person walks over the bones of slaves?
What kind of person is a slave to bones?
I know a poet, who calls it weird, this slaving of bones. This woman opens the legs of the dead, eats bread with severed ears, sometimes lives in the kitchen rooms at Monticello. We’ll visit her later.
If you could follow me out the front door, down the steps, to the tree-framed path. The trees, I don’t know, maybe willow. Their beauty sickens me. Past the sign to Smithfield Cemetery. I’m sorry. We have to do this.
This is the barren field. We believe slave cabins once stood here. As you can see, nothing now. Notice the alternate view of the plantation house on the rise above us. We can imagine. We can interpret.
The oak tree, over 500 years old. We know this almost for sure. We screwed in the borer, pulled out the core, sanded it down, and counted the rings. The tree is a window, a broken aria of fire. The tree is a ship of smoke, a river, a wedding. Its winter branches twist inside the sky.
This snow is not part of the tour.
If I open my arms and wrap them around the trunk, let’s pretend I can reach your cold hands. Let’s pretend this sudden snow doesn’t feel like sudden death. Let’s make snow slaves and call them angels. Look: if you stand here, behind the oak, the house disappears. I haven’t told this to anyone. We’re hidden, safe. Let’s stay here, hold hands, say thank you to the barren field. Let’s say nothing. I’m sorry.
Where do you want to go? I’ll take you anywhere. To your mother? Your father? Their bent faces at your memorial in New York. To the sweet, new candy you bought on your way home. To the girl on the phone right before he shot you. Let’s go there, to a moment of your breath. Let’s stay here. If we could, just tell me, please. Let’s never move again.