Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Ruth Thompson’s “Crazing”

Contemporary poet Ruth Thompson inspires me with her vision of mature womanhood and life in harmony with nature. I reviewed her previous full-length collection, Woman With Crows, on the blog last year.

The mature and courageous poems in her latest chapbook, Crazing (Saddle Road Press, 2015), teach us to discern the difference between natural and unnatural change. She responds with extraordinary grace and playfulness to the scattering of her mental and physical abilities in old age, the “crazing” of the glaze that gives the vessel its character, the cracks in the body’s shell from which the spirit emerges like a baby chick. At the same time, her embrace of the cycles of nature empassions her to resist alterations that are sudden, irreversible, and a dead end for life on this planet. She mourns not for herself but for lost tree species, droughts, and future generations who may “die thirsty, telling stories of our green shade.” Her acceptance of her personal body’s limitations shows us a humbler, more sustainable way to inhabit the body of Mother Earth.

She has kindly permitted me to share two poems from the chapbook below. (Full disclosure: Ruth previously blurbed my new collection, Bullies in Love.)

Mary Speaks

How relieved I was when it was over.
How easily I vanished from the story.

When it was finished, given over to their
busy hands, I slipped away like a fish.

I bundled myself back on the donkey,
unwound the old stars to show the way.

In the dark of the moon I came home.

Now I pour silica over my shoulders.
In both my palms I feel the shift.

Some men thank the god for dying
and the Mother who made him,

but these men will have no Mother.
No matter. The boy is dead.

Far away the rains begin.
First flood, then riversilt: his flesh.

Body sloughs like a stalk of wheat
lays another spiral in the grain.

Here at the bony heart of things,
I dance the red sun up over the hills.

****

Losing the Words

Wantons, they’d give themselves to anyone!

See how they slip in and out of one another’s clothes?

See how–dressed in zinnia-colored feathers, giggling–
they settle to the lip like birds, then flicker away?

Oh, they hide behind the roof of my mouth with flashlights,
cast firefly shadows on my stuttering tongue–

dash onto the stage and off, grinning madly–
above them that terrible sign: Exeunt Omnes.

For one day all of them–
all the thousand thousand names of God–

will fall in love. Conjoin. Merge
into the unkempt darkness behind the stars.

They will be gone forever. Then silence
will enter the echoing chambers of my mind.

It will speak its name at last.
I will say Yes.

Love Wins at the Supreme Court!

Image result for marriage equality graphic

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right to marriage equality! States may no longer ban same-sex marriages or refuse to recognize such marriages performed in other states.

From LGBTQ Nation:

Gay and lesbian couples already could marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The court’s 5-4 ruling means the remaining 14 states, in the South and Midwest, will have to stop enforcing their bans on same-sex marriage.

The outcome is the culmination of two decades of Supreme Court litigation over marriage, and gay rights generally.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, just as he did in the court’s previous three major gay rights cases dating back to 1996. It came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions…

…The cases before the court involved laws from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Those states have not allowed same-sex couples to marry within their borders and they also have refused to recognize valid marriages from elsewhere.

Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law that denied a range of government benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

The decision in United States v. Windsor did not address the validity of state marriage bans, but courts across the country, with few exceptions, said its logic compelled them to invalidate state laws that prohibited gay and lesbian couples from marrying.

From the New York Times:

The decision, the culmination of decades of litigation and activism, came against the backdrop of fast-moving changes in public opinion, with polls indicating that most Americans now approve of same-sex marriage.

Justice Kennedy said gay and lesbian couples had a fundamental right to marry.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” he wrote. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” Justice Kennedy said of the couples challenging state bans on same-sex marriage. “Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Big thanks to GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders) for arguing this case before the Supreme Court. (The case named on their website, DeBoer v. Snyder, was consolidated with Obergefell and two others.) Check out the Tumblr blog at Freedom to Marry for inspiring photos and stories of celebration around the country.

When I was born, homosexuality was still labeled a psychiatric disorder. There were no children’s books with two-mom families like mine. Although I went to an arts high school in NYC in the 1980s, I didn’t know any out gay teenagers. I’m happily stunned that this tremendous social change has happened during my lifetime.

I know that the struggle for social justice is not over, for the LGBT community and others. But please, hold off on the cautionary tweets and think pieces, for just one day. Let’s give ourselves a Sabbath of rejoicing.

046

My super cool lesbian mom and me, summer 2011. Come party with us in Northampton tonight!

After Charleston: Seek White Repentance, Not Black Forgiveness

Last Wednesday a young white supremacist man murdered nine African-Americans who were taking part in a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Emanuel AME is one of the oldest and largest historically black congregations in the South, and played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. The Root has published profiles of the victims of this terrorist act, including three pastors of the church. Go read those and pray over them, then let’s talk about a certain kind of follow-on emotional violence that our media perpetrates–against some kinds of victims in particular.

Racism is abuse. Like domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, racist attacks are perpetrated by individuals but supported by our shared culture. Sometimes we actively spread these beliefs, other times we simply fail to notice them and miss opportunities to challenge them. Dehumanizing beliefs about a less-powerful group seem so normal that we refuse to see their role in justifying violence. That would implicate too many of us in acts that our media depicts as extreme individual aberrations.

I’m not saying that most white people want to murder blacks. But do we unconsciously view black lives as less valuable? Do we interpret the same behavior as “menacing” or “troubled” depending on the subject’s race, a filter that makes black men the primary targets of police brutality and incarceration? Do we define “racism” so narrowly that it never applies to our thoughts and actions?

In the days following the Charleston massacre, my husband and I happened to be listening to the audio book of James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. We were on disks 5-6 of 12 (it’s heavy stuff!) learning about how the Confederacy’s myth of Black incompetence and corruption, popularized in Gone With the Wind, became the dominant cultural narrative about the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction. Though we knew better than to take GWTW as unbiased history, my husband and I were still shocked by how much falsehood we’d casually absorbed from our textbooks and popular culture. That includes falsehood by omission: we didn’t learn about the immediate and brutally effective campaign of terror to suppress the black vote, stifle literacy, and force non-whites out of skilled professions. What else do we “know for sure that just ain’t so”?

The story we tell about a violent crime determines whether we collectively confront the sources of that violence, or look away. Whether we listen to members of the victimized group, or continue to silence and discredit them. Whether we dismiss Charleston shooter Dylann Roof’s racist jokes and apartheid flags as harmless delusions, until he fatally puts them into practice.

The “forgiveness” story, so beloved by our melodramatic and context-free media, is a silencing story.

It seems that every time there is a massacre of innocents, reporters are up in the faces of the mourners, asking “Do you forgive?” before the bodies are cold. Editorials repeat Sunday School platitudes and proclaim that only through forgiveness can the bereaved find healing. It happened during the Amish school shooting in 2006, the Newtown school shooting in 2012, and again this past weekend in Charleston. Earlier this summer, when it was revealed that Christian fundamentalist reality-TV star Josh Duggar had molested his sisters, his celebrity parents cited the girls’ alleged forgiveness of their elder brother as evidence that we should let bygones be bygones. The pressure to perform the role of the “good victim” bears down with extra weight upon members of less-powerful groups who reasonably fear they will not be valued or believed: e.g. sexual assault survivors, children, or African-Americans in a racist society.

Notably, it did not happen after 9/11, to the best of my recollection. The peace activists who sympathized with the desperation of the suicide bombers had their patriotism questioned, or at best seemed insensitive to bring this up while so many of us were still in shock and grieving. This was no time for sentimental empathy for the killers, this was an attack on America!

Was not the Charleston hate crime an attack on America? A strike against a historic landmark, targeting civilians, spiting the values we claim to hold most dear–freedom of worship, racial equality, life and liberty?

The forgiveness story centers the perpetrator. It makes the victim’s worth conditional on his or her response to the crime. It reduces these crimes to a private issue that can be settled between individuals, more like a civil tort than an offense against society. It gives the rest of us permission to minimize the damage, and to neglect our responsibility for the culture that incubated abusers and killers.

What if, instead, reporters in the days following Charleston had pulled over random white people on the street and asked, “Do you repent of white racism in America?”

Well, I do.

I can’t apologize on behalf of Dylann Roof. I didn’t pull that trigger, and I would never in my wildest dreams want to do such a thing. But I repent in the sense of “turn again”: I accept the responsibility to turn back and take a second look at the beliefs I’ve absorbed, turn away from racially biased stories, and turn toward learning from and signal-boosting black voices.

To that end, here are four excellent commentaries on the oppressive demand for black forgiveness in the context of racism.

Trudy, who writes the black womanist blog Gradient Lair, made this powerful Storify of her June 20 tweets on Black Forgiveness Without White Contrition. Follow her on Twitter @thetrudz, and if you love how she kicks your ass with the truth, please support her writing with a donation or subscription (see the right-hand sidebar of the blog for options). An excerpt:

Analyzing POWER here. Families of victims of State violence are indirectly demanded to apologize if Whites hate protestors’ actions.

Now those families might actually disagree with the protestors, right. But examine the DEMANDED performance of compliance with Whiteness.

In same way, *a few* fam members of *some* of 9’s families may forgive as their process, but examine indirect DEMAND for performance of it.

Hypervisibility on Blackness = consistent direct or indirect (again, structural power dynamics) demand for PERFORMANCE for White comfort.

Direct or indirect demand for performance of forgiveness to assuage guilt of ppl w/ more power is STANDARD abuse culture & American as hell.

& ppl with power have ZERO ACCOUNTABILITY to those harmed and their comfort centered above the harmed’s safety. Standard abuse culture.

Anger can be useful. Anger is a stage of grief. Well, for humans. Black ppl clearly excluded from human expression…

…Notice how media narrative shifts to “good Blacks forgive; bad Blacks don’t” versus WHY IS WHITE TERRORISM A FACTOR SINCE 1492?

Essayist and literature professor Kiese Laymon writes in the UK newspaper The Guardian:

…Grandma and her church taught me that loving white folks in spite of their investment in our terror was our only chance of not becoming them morally…

I told her that loving white supremacists in the face of white supremacy is a hallmark of American evil, and a really a fundamental part of the black American experience in this country.

It’s what we’re supposed to do, I said.

Many of us have made a life of hoping to get chosen for jobs, chosen for awards, chosen for acceptance from people, structures and corporations bred on white supremacy. We’re hoping to get chosen by people who can not see us. Knowing that they hate and terrorize us doesn’t stop us from wanting to get chosen. That’s the crazy thing. Everything about this country told Grandma, a black woman born in Central Mississippi in 1920s, to love, honor and forgive white folks. And this country still tells me, a black boy born in Mississippi in the 1970s, to titillate and tend to the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of white people in my work.

I told my Grandma that we should have chosen ourselves. I tell her that we should have let us in. We should have held each other, and fallen in healthy love with each other, instead of watching shame make parts of us disappear.

What do we make of the shameful work of being chosen? Our family eats that shame, quite literally. Other families drink the shame. All the work that we put into forgiving white supremacy, white power and white people, and then hoping to be chosen by those people, should have gone into talking about – and collectively reckoning with – our familial experiences with sexual violence, food, and trauma.

Shame strangles, I told Grandma; truth sets free. But what does any truth set free look like? I know that I don’t know.

What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do. At my worst, I know that I’ve wanted the people that I’ve hurt to look forward, imagining all that I can be and forgetting the contours of who I have been to them.

In Ebony, theologian Candace Benbow preaches a survivor-centric gospel in her article Christian Responses to Charleston are Killing Black Women:

Of the nine people killed at Mother Emanuel, six were women. We now know that the pastor’s wife and one of their daughters hid in his study as Roof went on his rampage. A mother played dead in her son’s blood, while another elderly woman’s life was spared. At least ten sisters were present in Mother Emanuel on that terrible night. Sisters have been turning to the church for centuries to cope with White supremacy and Black pain. It is no shock that so many Black women were there Wednesday because we are the church. Yet, despite comprising the bulk of Black church membership, the theology of our churches has yet to respond to our pain and address our needs. In just three days, we began to celebrate the forgiveness extended by the families. Pastors offered this as an example of authentic faith; this, according to them, is what Jesus would want from his disciples. But what does that mean for young women unable to forgive their rapists, molesters, abusers and attackers? What can we give them for healing instead of trite clichés and biblical interpretation that places responsibility on them? Whenever faced with difficulty, we are always reminded that we are strong Black women. Because sisters before us survived worse, we should be able to survive our current crisis. Survival is important but we glory too much in it.

How are Black women supposed to understand that violation is wrong when they hear pastors celebrate how God is able to use it for His glory and their development?

Weak theology seeks to protect a God who is not vulnerable. God can handle our questions, anger and disbelief. God is concerned about our emotional health and we do that concern a disservice when we preach otherwise. Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his time whenever the articulations of their faith further marginalized oppressed people. We must do the same and hold our leaders accountable for the ways they prevent Black women from healing, causing even greater despair. If Black women are strong, perhaps that strength is in acknowledging our weaknesses. It could be that we are strong because we recognize when we need help and accept it when others are trying to share our load.

I must admit that I am a long way from forgiveness. I’m not ready to forgive Roof and others who have hurt me. And I believe that’s okay. I believe God understands my unwillingness to forgive is tied to the unbearable pain I feel and would never hold that against me. I believe God journeys with me, even in seasons of unforgiveness, and understands that it’s hard sometimes. I believe God is acquainted with my grief and, above all things, wants me whole and well. We must cultivate a faith that allows Black women to be honest and vulnerable. We must give them the tools to understand that God never called them to be Jesus but to be faithful and human.

Mallory Ortberg is one of my favorite contemporary satirists. She is wrong that Avalon’s “Testify to Love” is not the best Contemporary Christian Music song of 1999, but other than that, I trust her to rightly divide the word of truth. In a more serious post for her website The Toast, she interviewed Carvell Wallace, founder of the urban youth initiative Vibosity, on The White Myth of Black Forgiveness. An excerpt:

Carvell: I think a lot of people forget that forgiveness of racists among black people is something that WE DO IN ORDER TO KEEP OUR SOULS INTACT.

Mallory: Oh man, let’s start with that. Break down a little, if you will, what you think forgiveness means in the context of Black American Christianity, with the usual caveat that you do not speak for all black Americans, but are familiar with the broad context?

Carvell: Yes. Thanks for that, and also why do we still have to explain that I don’t speak for 40 gajllion people. But. Anyway. There’s a difference between the private act of forgiveness and the public act of forgiveness.

Mallory: Which I think maybe a lot of white people do not understand! Again, there are many kinds of white people and white Christians, but in the broad Christian context I grew up in, saying “I forgive you” was generally understood to be a complete act. You forgave someone when you were DONE wrestling through what they had done to you. And it meant that you were, if not over it completely, at a certain amount of peace, and that things were, generally speaking, “okay.”

Carvell: Right. Well, when your entire history in this country has been about literally dying to be considered human, you have to develop a Christianity that enables you to fight while also “forgiving them” who hurt you. We have to forgive the sinner because the accumulated resentment could destroy us, but that will never mean that we don’t fight tooth and nail against the sin.

Mallory: So it has more to do with self-protection than it does with absolution, it sounds like.

Carvell: Absolutely. It’s nothing to do with the offender and it’s not about granting a pass to anyone.

Mallory: I think a lot of us miss that entirely.

Carvell: It’s more about clearing your heart of hate SPECIFICALLY SO YOU CAN CONTINUE TO FIGHT.

Keep fighting the good fight, readers.

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Lisken Van Pelt Dus’s “Everywhere at Once”

Lisken Van Pelt Dus is a poet, teacher, and martial artist, raised in England, the US, and Mexico, and now living in Massachusetts. Her work can be found in such journals as Conduit, The South Carolina Review, Qarrtsiluni, and Upstreet, and has earned awards and honors from The Comstock Review, The Atlanta Review, and Cider Press Review. Her chapbook, Everywhere at Once, was published by Pudding House Press in 2009, and her first full-length book, What We’re Made Of, is due out from WordTech Communications’ Cherry Grove imprint in May 2016.

I had the pleasure of reading with Lisken at a local poetry event several years ago (we think it was Upstreet Magazine in Pittsfield, but we’re not sure!) where I purchased the above-mentioned chapbook. Recurring images of birds and mountaintops give this collection its uplifting, spacious, graceful character. Like a rushing wind or forest stream, human life is constantly in motion, swept along and altered by the passage of time. “It’s only/January but already birds are practicing song.” The poet’s mission, and her gift to us, is to pull over her bike in the field, or pause at the summit, so that we notice our place on the cosmic wheel and experience a moment of gratitude.

The chapbook is unfortunately out of print, but some of its poems will be included in her forthcoming book, including the two below, which she has kindly allowed me to republish here.

Becoming Double

A number of us had gathered
in the curious way the world has
of gathering people, a random
rightness hovering, and then

what we all hoped for
though we could not name it,
sunshine in the dry altitude,
and conversation, and silence
resonant with a depth that made us
listen as if to reach the bottom of it.

At night the moon
scoured the hills and terraces.
Day warmed slowly. We followed
goat tracks up until we reached
a spring, its drinking trough filthy
with horseshit and roiled mud.
We stopped to watch a kestrel dive,
traded stares and greetings
with leathery goat-drivers on horseback,
scaled rocks like steps
to the top of the dusty hill-side.

One hill rose higher still.
The sign said Propiedad Privada but
the barbed wire was mostly trampled
horizontal. This was open land.
We walked into the sky.

This much is accurate.
What happened next
cannot be described so simply.
I too would have thought it impossible:
we reached the top but kept walking,
higher, as if we could fly by striding.
The hill that had seemed so tall
dropped away from us, flap
of wind-whipped ribbons
on huge crosses falling inaudible,
goat-bells paling. I saw
the wind itself rise to lift us.
In the distance the town grew smaller.

To this day I don’t know
how we returned or even if
we came back to the same land
we had left. Dust still clings
to my boots and hawks
still call sharply at the sight of prey.
The sun rises each morning
and the moon cycles.
A number of us depart
and reunite. Two are me.

****

Flight of Starlings

From the bay window in our living room
it looks like dozens of starlings
have just flown into your workshop below me,

dive-bombers launched from the trees
to the snow-free ground under our eaves.
I imagine them in there, winging

among the tools, perched on the table saw
or pecking at jars of screws and wall plugs.
One loses a feather. When you come home

you’ll find a filigree of spindly footprints
in the sawdust, and the black iridescence
of the bird’s absence. It is something

utterly other, this feather, this bird.
It’s from another place, a place we
can’t get to–it can’t happen

any more than we can go back
to a time before loss. But somewhere
a bird is balancing effortlessly on a branch

or in the air, without that feather.

Chapbook Spotlight: Poetry from Catherine Sasanov’s “Tara”

In Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, “Tara” was Scarlett O’Hara’s family plantation, a symbol of the supposedly idyllic (for white people) Southern way of life before the Civil War. The poet Catherine Sasanov references this pro-slavery myth ironically, tragically, in the title of her chapbook Tara (Cervena Barva Press, 2008), not as a vanished Eden but as confession of white America’s original sin.

This exquisite, penitent chapbook unearths lives overlooked by official histories. Upon discovering that her Missouri forebears had owned slaves, the poet undertook the task of reconstructing the latter’s stories from the scraps of information in local records. The incompleteness of the narrative stands as an indictment of white America’s lack of care for black lives. Suburban development appears as the latest form of erasure of the graves on which civilization is built.

Most of the poems in Tara are also included in Sasanov’s subsequent full-length collection Had Slaves, which won the Sentence Book Award from Firewheel Editions and was published by Firewheel in 2010. Thanks to both publishers and the author for permission to reprint the poem below.

On Reading the Missouri Slave Narratives Collected by the Federal Writers Project

(for Elizabeth Herndon Sharp, 1839-1945)

Missouri, 1937. The year white folks armed
with pens, with paper,
come to excavate memory’s shallow grave. Get paid to sift the slavery from it.

Before the old mouths die out around their stories. So they can lay their words out to dry.
So fresh, the spit still shines on them. Light cuts and bruises insisting how
Black thought exits through the teeth–

Eye dialect, written by men, by women, who never read the Braille
whipped into an ex-slave’s back. Look at the way each word is strained
through the minstrel show in their heads: Honey,

mama’s gwan way off, ain’t never goin to see her baby agin.

They ask about belief in ghosts, get scared when surface
wanders towards them white: black girls perfect as a glass of milk
whole towns choose to hold upright, so the one drop theory won’t spill out.

In spite of dust storms, failed banks, plagues of locusts,
did the called-to-ask give thanks to Jesus for a present as perfect as this Great Depression
to make our past look good? In Missouri,

1937, they invite themselves onto 92 porches, eke child slaves out
of 80-year-old women, 90-year-old men. Pens poised for the moments
dripping with nostalgia. Pages buckling beneath the weight:

Ole Mistress, slopping children’s meals in a pig trough.

Old Master, dragging a sick man from his cabin,
throwing him living in his grave:
We’ll come back in about an hour, he should be dead by then.

(What children see while running errands.
What children wrest from beneath their eyelids
so they can drop to their knees and eat.)

Bloody footprints across the floorboards.

A toddler crawling into her mother’s coffin, Look at my pretty dress.

How close can I lean in and listen
70 years away from voices
bound into a book? Where my family’s slaves died out

outside its pages. Where no one came to slide a sheet of paper
underneath their words. In Missouri, 1937,
my father’s tucked into its southwest corner,

lives on a campus called the forty acres. He learns to think
he’s years, not blocks, away
from the last slave linked

to his family. She’ll wait till 1945,
while no one tries
to take down her story.

I’ve touched the edges of her unmarked grave,
beat my hands against its dirt and howled.
But why should she get up, answer now

this trace of slaveholder
in my blood: distinct though distant,
watered down. What runs this pack of words across

the thin ice of the page.

Chapbook Spotlight: Nancy Craig Zarzar’s “Waiting for Pentecost”

In the Christian calendar, Pentecost celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit into the world. As recounted in Acts 2, the Spirit enabled a diverse gathering of early Christ-followers to hear the gospel simultaneously in all of their languages, healing the disunity of human tribes that began with the Tower of Babel story.

Nancy Craig Zarzar’s prizewinning chapbook Waiting for Pentecost (Main Street Rag, 2007) depicts intimate relationships cleaved by silences, frustrated by communication barriers both psychological and inter-cultural, but capable of being healed by empathy. Divine grace helps some of these characters find the willingness to enter into another’s strange mental world, like the husband who alone appreciates the creative visions of his stigmatized, mentally ill wife. Others remain on the opposite side of the barrier, perhaps because their intentions were not as pure, like the male narrator who is intrigued by his hairdresser’s quiet daughter.

Main Street Rag’s editor has kindly given me permission to reprint the title poem below.

WAITING FOR PENTECOST

I was married beside the river,
to the babble of strange-throated birds.
My husband, whom I hardly knew,
took vows in his language, and I in mine.
How strange, that words are only sounds.
That night his dark hands murmured across my body,
as if meaning were a kind of Braille on the skin.
But he could not find me there.
At last, we grew accustomed to the silence—
my tongue would not hold his language.
When I spoke, he softly drew his hand across my lips
and smiled, as if unwilling
to untangle the nonsense.
Then his mouth came down,
putting out sound like a candle.

In the heavy afternoons,
we passed purple fruit and loaves of bread
across the ocean of our table.
A green parrot in a cage muttered to himself-
a stranger had taught him to speak.
At dusk, when the winds gathered over the water,
I listened for birds calling,
but they seemed to have become mute.
I think the birds here mate secretly,
and live alone.

Once, I dreamed as my husband spoke
his words became colored serpents
whose bellies glistened with tangled markings.
They encircled my throat and hands,
then wound around my head to cover my eyes.
I must have screamed in my sleep,
for when I awoke,
his tentative fingers were brushing my throat.
At last, a sound he understood.

Sometimes in my loneliness
I imagined we were suddenly grafted together at the temples—
a man-woman exchanging secrets through our blood.
One thought could move our four hands.
I am sure there are creatures as strange
wandering in the labyrinth of our woods.

Now I have been married for ten springs.
Each year I wait for a Pentecost that never finds us.
I often dream those tongues of fire
have burned the masks off our words
so we can touch and read their faces.
But in this world, in the shadow of the Tower,
we must choose between babble and silence.

At night, in our attic bedroom,
I sit alone by the window,
yearning for something to break itself with sound.
I am answered by his breathing,
like the brush of nothingness.
I watch as the river darkens,
carrying swans and refuse toward the sea.

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Ellen LaFleche’s “Beatrice”

Full disclosure: Ellen LaFleche is my dear friend, writing critique partner, Winning Writers judging associate, and bohemian style icon. When you read her poems, you’ll wish she was in your life, too. Gorgeous and inventive as her language is, it is never merely pretty for its own sake. Her body of work has a mission of dignifying and illuminating the lives of real people, particularly blue-collar workers and women.

In her latest prizewinning chapbook, Beatrice (Tiger’s Eye Press, 2014), the tides of the sacred feminine seek an outlet in the cloistered body of Sister Beatrice, a working-class mystic. The convent offers both refuge and confinement—the paradox of a women-ruled society where women must de-sexualize themselves. The ascetic environment cannot quench the vitality of Beatrice’s imagination, which finds golden-faced gods in copper pans and lust’s soft satisfaction in a raw quahog.

The press does not have an online order page, so contact Ellen directly to purchase a copy for $10 at ElLaFleche@aol.com.  Please enjoy these sample poems below.

PEARL

The day after scattering her mother’s ashes in the ocean, Sister Beatrice goes quahogging

Morning-scape.
Clouds arranged in blurred
bands of coral and pink like lipstick samples
on the back of the Avon Lady’s hand.

Twenty years inside
that tomb-shaped nun boot
but Sister Beatrice’s foot
remembers its childhood skill–
how to stalk the quahog,
big toe trawling the tide
like a predator’s snout.

Cool wind whirling off the waves
in salt-loaded squalls.
Sister’s veil flaps so hard around her skull
it muffles the crackle of foam,
the slap of kelp and jetsam.

The clam she captures is still
alive, breathy and warm
in its hinged brown casket.

The clam-flesh dampens under her finger,
its belly slack as love in its puddle of juice,
elegant neck recoiling
from Sister’s tender pinch.

She knows the danger
of eating it raw. But Beatrice swallows,
the head-tilted gulp
a remembered pleasure in her throat.

No pearl
to roll down the esophageal slide,
just a tidal rush of sand
and delicious clam-water
splashing under her tongue.

****

CHALICE OF SALVATION

Before bringing Halloween treats to children at the homeless shelter, Sister Beatrice joins the other nuns for a party in the rec room

For tonight
she’s Father Beatrice,
swaggering with manly elegance
in a long black cassock,
white collar fashioned from a toilet-paper
tube coiled around the throat.

Mother Superior has turned herself
into a lion
tamer, ferocious in her tux
and tails, her whip of shredded Easter
ribbons whooshing over the stunned
head of a Cowardly Lion nun.

Sister Veronica is a paper maché
chalice, spray-painted gold, studded
with ruby and diamond rhinestones.

Father Beatrice places his priestly
hands on Veronica’s goblet hips,
lifts her high over his head for adoration.

Father begins to waltz,
slow-dancing around the rec
room, the holy chalice
pressed against his heart.

Until the Mother Superior
pries them apart
with the tip of her whip.

Chapbook Spotlight: Two Poems from Roberta Beary’s “Deflection”

June is poetry chapbook review month at Reiter’s Block! I’ve been catching up on my large collection of small press gems, some newly published, some winners of contests from a few years ago. Like an exquisitely arranged plate of sushi, the chapbook is a perfect way to savor the bold, exotic flavors of poetry in a manageable portion size. The thematic interplay among the poems can be more apparent in a shorter, focused collection.

Roberta Beary’s Deflection (Accents Publishing, 2015) is a resonant, poised collection of free verse inspired by Japanese poetic forms. The book embodies the haiku aesthetic of saying much with little, of self-restraint as testament to depth of feeling. The majority of the poems deal with loss: the end of a relationship, the death of a parent, a son’s transformation into a stranger who makes risky choices. Yet the austere poetic style gives the reader a breathing space to assimilate each stab of insight before the next comes. The haiku-like three-line stanzas that interrupt or close certain narrative passages offer a welcome shift, a moment to be mindful of beauty that exists apart from our personal dramas.

Follow Roberta Beary on Twitter @shortpoemz and visit her website for more sample poems and “photoku” (haiku paired with images), bibliography, and schedule of upcoming readings.

She has kindly allowed me to reprint the following poems. I was particularly struck by the final image in “Before the Outing”, which sheds a more sympathetic light on the parents’ discomfort with their son’s orientation. Whether the narrator’s perception of danger in this partnership is true or a projection, it suggests that homosexuality unsettles people because male sexual desire makes its object vulnerable.

BEFORE THE OUTING

i

my son’s boyfriend
three words i practice saying
alone in my room

ii

rainbow flag
father pretends
not to see

iii

not something
that’s contagious
still you step back
from my son
and his boyfriend

iv

rainbow flag
mother tiptoes around
the subject

v

with knife in hand
my son’s lover dissects
the last white peach

****

MEMORARE

May is the month of Mary every day in May
be sure to wear something blue in Mary’s honor
that never was it known that anyone who fled
to thy protection implored thy help or sought
thy intercession was left unaided patent leather
shoes are not allowed because boys must be
kept free from temptation to thee do I come
before thee I stand sinful and sorrowful always
remember your guardian angel despise not my
petitions but in thy mercy hear and answer me

meth addict
the baby face
in my wallet

It’s the Real Thing: “Mad Men” and the Art of Sincerity

Image result for stan peggy kiss image

I honestly don’t care what happens to Don Draper. My girl Peggy found love!

“Mad Men”, a TV drama that was truly a work of art, came to an end last Sunday with the season 7 finale “Person to Person”. The most-debated question on the Internet is whether self-destructive genius Don Draper found enlightenment after his emotional breakthrough at Esalen, the New Age retreat center, or returned to New York to create the iconic 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad. Style mavens Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out telltale costuming similarities between the real-life ad and the characters at Don’s encounter group.

As Oscar Wilde would say, “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”

Image result for mad men don esalen image

In my view, the ambiguous ending challenges us to examine our beliefs about the appearance of sincerity in art. The finale wrapped up most of the main characters’ storylines on a surprisingly upbeat note, giving us more closure and optimism than we’ve grown to expect from serious literary dramas. Was the final shot of the Coke ad supposed to challenge our enjoyment of happy endings–a jab from the show’s creators saying “This is fan-service, you asked for it, but remember this isn’t real“? The territory of simple, straightforward emotional catharsis has been so successfully colonized by advertising that a great deal of postmodern high culture is devoted to remixing those sentimental images in a degrading or dystopian fashion. The contemporary art museum is Don Draper’s wastebasket.

On an alternative reading, irony and sincerity are both performances. Our emotions are genuine but our expression of them is formed by social cues. Mass media bombards us with images of how to be whatever we are. Even if we don’t watch TV, we are watching other people who do, to figure out how to present ourselves in a way they’ll understand. George Saunders took this insight to extremes in his poignant, horrifying story “Jon”, where teenage lovers in a market-research prison camp literally can’t look at the moon without a commercial for Rebel CornBells playing in their brain implants.

Like me, Don is compulsively creative. He makes art to understand his feelings and to run away from his feelings; to connect with others and to substitute for personal relationships. (In that sense it’s an extension of his sex addiction!) I’m certain that if I’d wrecked my life, had a tearful breakdown in a therapy group, and found inner bliss on a mountaintop, part of my brain would constantly be observing myself throughout those experiences, thinking “What does this feel like? How can I describe it? How can I use it in my next writing project?”

In other words, the impulse to produce something worldly, even commercial, out of your moment of enlightenment doesn’t mean that enlightenment wasn’t genuine. And on the flip side, boundary-less emotionalism and flamboyant devotion to spiritual practice can also be a mask for egotism, passive-aggressive power, and seduction. I would have been more worried about Don (not to mention the women around him) if he’d instantly transformed into a smiling guru who hugged everyone. It was both funny and creepy to hear the middle-class hippies at Esalen using what I call the “group therapy voice”, the breathy, spaced-out delivery that disguises backstabbing judgments as vulnerable I-statements. 45 years later, it’s as much a pose as Betty Draper’s helmet hair and fatal cigarette.

I prefer to remember her this way.

For me, the show’s multi-layered ending could mean that we don’t have to concede the field of sincere feeling to McCann-Erickson. We can become conscious of the fact that our aesthetic nihilism is a defensive reaction to the emotional manipulations of Madison Avenue. “There is no Real Thing” is not necessarily any truer than “Coke is the Real Thing”.

Peggy Olson is my hero because she was always real. Whereas Don succeeded by presenting himself as whatever people wanted to see–so successfully that he lost sight of his own identity–Peggy succeeded by not caring what others thought of her. Her ego is in her work, not in her performance of “Peggy Olson”.

Which doesn’t stop her from being fiiiine.

New York City fans: There’s a “Mad Men” costume exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria till June 14. Next month, I will be in the presence of the holy relics of Peggy! Hail thee festival day!

UPDATE June 6: I went to New York City Ballet on Saturday night with my father and stepmother, and who should be sitting next to us, but the lovely Elisabeth Moss herself! She was so gracious to me when I recognized her, and signed my program. I didn’t want to seem crass by asking for a selfie with her. It was beyond my wildest dreams merely to be in the Real Presence.

I also didn’t tell her I have two of these prayer candles. Because that would be weird.

Alabama State Poetry Society’s David Kato Prize Celebrates LGBT Rights

The Alabama State Poetry Society’s annual writing contest offers numerous awards for poems in various styles and themes. The ASPS has a long history of supporting emerging and local writers. For the past three years, I’ve sponsored their David Kato Prize, for poems on the human rights of LGBT people. The prize honors a Ugandan activist for sexual minorities who was murdered in a hate crime in 2011. He was the advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda; follow and support their important work on their website. The ASPS has kindly permitted me to publish the winning poems here.

FIRST PRIZE

Show Time
by Sylvia Williams Dodgen

An inexplicable moment, how did it happen
so quickly in such an unlikely place
or did it happen at all?
For I had seemed to hold my breath
not to dispel that surreal slot in time:
a sweltering summer midnight,
the corner of forty-second and tenth,
edging Hell’s Kitchen.
Following a bow-tied foursome
in white top hats and tails
into a pharmacy, the magic began.
The foursome asked for novelties.
I veered off and met a tall young man
in platinum wig, Marilyn style,
arrayed in light blue plastic bubbles, neck to thigh,
long legs gartered in silver hose with tiny bows,
ascending from stiletto heels,
taps clinking, as he moved along the shelves,
a larger-than-life Marilyn in moveable bath.
Gliding by, “Love your outfit, darling.”
“Yours too,” I smiled, rounded the aisle and
met an older woman in floor-length, rainbow vest,
hugging a cat in a pink crocheted cap.
Wagging his paw, the woman said, “Say, ‘hi’, Sunny.”
I smiled at Sunny
then moved to stand in line behind white tuxedos
checking out.
The young man in bubbles approached from behind
followed by the rainbow clad woman,
carrying her cat and a bottle of wine, like pots of gold.
Our collage exuded such energy the
air around us hummed.
I grinned and felt my hair roots lift,
my skin shine, as though I were a polished lamp,
with genie inside.
Bubbles whispered down to me,
“Feel the vibe? It’s show time,”
and burst into John Lennon’s lyrics.
Exiting tuxedos turned and sang in unison,
“Imagine all the people, living for today,”
Bubbles raised his arms and began to sway.

****

SECOND PRIZE

History Repeats
by Debra Self

My husband, our two children and I
passed through Indiana
as we traveled back home from vacation.
A cacophony of harsh sounds
emitted from Steve’s stomach
in rhythm to the girls’ bellies
so we pulled over at a Bar-B-Q dive.

As we walked in and sat down,
people began to stare at us
to the point of rudeness.
Then, instead of a waiter,
the manager walked over.

“Are you two gay?” he asked.
“Why, yes, sir, we are,” I replied.
“Then you need to get out.”
We were incredulous.
“Excuse me?” I blubbered.

“Did you not see the sign
on the door when you came in?”
“Apparently not.”

“It says that due to my religious beliefs,
I do not serve faggots. So get the hell out!”

Other people sitting around also began
name calling and yelling for us to leave.
Some even threatened to take away
our daughters. One woman actually tried
to grab them from us.

We gathered the girls, rushed to the car,
and quickly jumped in. The people had followed
us out and as we sped off, picked up rocks
and threw them at the car.

Both girls sat in my lap crying
as Steve carefully drove home.
We happily left the dust of Indiana
behind us.

I hope…

****

THIRD PRIZE

The Man Jesse
by Myra Ward Barra

Regretfully, Jesse was gone when I entered the family,
A young man, I’m told, who painfully dwindled away.

His loved ones often speak of him:
“Jesse, our brother with HIV.”
“Our cousin, Jesse, who had AIDS…”
“Jesse, my gay son who passed away.”

Over the years, I came to know Jesse in my own way,
Through thumbprints of his life, Jesse made himself known.

Once his siblings placed him in a box and took a photograph.
He was a rosy faced doll, a child’s present, gift wrapped.

Through his writing, I met a poet with incandescent light in
the darkness, a lamp of life glowing during bleak hours.

In a glossy, clay figure, I saw a potter transferring his thoughts to his hands,
forming a pudgy man in plaid clothes and a perky hat.

In a home video, Jesse was a ballroom dancer,
Pulling his grandmother to the floor, his free-style hair falling east and west,
His Versace tie swaying to Glenn Miller.

There was Jesse the animal lover, best friend, big brother, avid skier,
New York graphic designer.

Jesse deserves to be recognized apart from his illness.
Jesse was born a baby, lived with purpose, and died a man,
Jesse was not his disease.