New Poems by Conway: “Sleep Deprivation” and “City Elegy IX”

My prison pen pal “Conway“, who’s serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods in California’s notorious Pelican Bay facility, tells me that not much is new about the New Year. His early release petition hearing has been deferred yet again, till February. Keep him in your thoughts.

Meanwhile, he’s writing lots of poetry, and creating artwork for a book project commissioned by another reader of this blog. I’ll share full details when it’s published.

The poems below made me think about the normalization of torture. With 2.3 million Americans in prison, many suffering under conditions like these, can we call ourselves a free society?

Sleep Deprivation

It made no difference
how busy the hours had been, or
who I’d communicated to
through the unseen voices on this tier
while sipping a lukewarm cup of mud,
even if it took thirty minutes of pushing
the hot water button on the stainless toilet’s sink.

The only thing that made a difference
was that section door.
It opens so loudly, I had to wonder
if it hadn’t been devised on purpose
by some lousy crumb, to be that damn noisy.

It crashed open around midnight
reminding me with its rudeness
that I’m still locked in this concrete box.
By myself.
With no way to open this heart or door locks.

To remind me that I was alone.
The cop walked a flashlight
searching for eyes to shine in
as keys uselessly jangled songs
step up and down the stairs
then exit.

As the sounds of persistent doors
rattle away again
then, creeping silence forced its way back in.
I could only hope
that the return of the intruder
would find me safely wrapped
in slumber’s silent headlock.

Long enough
to be recovered before daylight
to be upright and shuffled
among the chained population.
Not that much of anything was happening.
But, if something did,
it’s best to be prepared for whatever.

The legacy of intrustions
of clinking clanking conclusions
schedules of the return
by someone I do not know
someone who would never say hello
but someone I swear I will not forget.
At least until I fall back asleep.

I was too much awake in lonely thought, in this empty cell, to surrender.
Or, to recover from the intrusion of lonesome desire.
So, I listened in to the section doors open and close
as time prowled around in this pen of lonely people…

****

City Elegy IX

The streets have been my cathedral
I stole through the nights, searched and crept
Trying to find a truth I could accept
In the streetlights’ dance, of taking a chance;
To be burned beneath the sidewalk of not.
This seemed to be all, that a living wage bought.

Now this soul’s been stripped naked for years…
Rewinding each skyless night
Counting myself alone
Stuffed into this squeeze of unknowns.
Enduring this endless crush of bones.
While gun towers cast their scorns
Sheltered beneath those barbed wire thorns
Flinging the sting, off the point
Of their meaning; A meaning I must endure.

So, now that I know the score,
I’ve lost any right to be more,
Than the rumbled crash, and groan
Of steel doors. As they rattle (in threat)
On every closing report. Exposing intent–
From a contempible court.
Like a jester unsprung, itching to finger someone.

This soul still recalls, all of its flaws…
My conscience remains true, above false.
Forged in this furnace, of doing hard time.
Refusing to drop, even one dime. That’s why–
These vents are still blowing in grit, as
I’m flat on my back, in this land of unfit.
And those amber lights. It should be no surprise,
They keep catching me spotting for spies.
But those yellow lights’ glare, man!
That’s always been there. I know better
Than to expect any slack. So–
I’m standing here staring right back.

If this truth contains proof…
Somewhere existing, at my vision’s edge.
Between the silence, as my voice fell out alone. (Or so I had thought.)
It wasn’t until your voice was hurled
In the wind at the top of the world.

So what, if everything’s changed. (Alright.)
Those memories shared, have still stayed the same.
They remain soft as the breeze–
In my city’s warm summer nights…

Reflections by Donal Mahoney: “The First of the Year”

At this time of year, you may be contemplating New Year’s resolutions to finish writing projects and send out more work to publishers. This true-life vignette by a regular contributor to Reiter’s Block is both timely and a poignant reminder that our creative egos are not the center of everyone’s universe. Spinning storylines from small details is great between the pages of a book, but sometimes this aspect of our minds makes us miss what’s really happening in a relationship.

The First of the Year

by Donal Mahoney

Anyone who has had poetry published by an editor over the years has a relationship with that editor whether one knows it or not.

Sometimes the relationship is lukewarm, other times bordering on friendship, occasionally deep. Over time, writer and the editor notice mannerisms in each other that are often never discussed since these insights have nothing to do with the work and time may be important to one or both. That’s happened to me with editors over the years but never with such impact as happened in an incident that occurred not long ago.

This editor has accepted my work on a regular basis and has kept his distance, a safe place to be for anyone dealing with writers, most of whom know how good they are. Every once in awhile, however, he would tell me that my writing reminded him of some author I had never read. I had always heard of the authors, some of them alive, others recently dead, all very good writers by the standards of this era. He would usually recommend a book or two by each author that he would say I should read. This was the only time he would border on the imperative. Otherwise he would sound as if he had been reading The New Yorker since birth.

This kind of response from an otherwise detached but intelligent editor is invigorating. To be compared to a good writer one has never read has a double benefit: One must be writing some things well. And one must not be subliminally plagiarizing the style of the author mentioned since he has never read him or her.

In the last couple of months, however, this meticulous editor hasn’t published a new issue, something he has done every month in the years since I first encountered his site. I had no idea what might be the matter. Stranger still, I had heard nothing from him and he was always one to respond.

I began thinking that maybe his failure to write might have had something to do with the last two pieces I had sent him. The content of both would be politically incorrect in his eyes but not in mine. I sent the pieces because it’s good at times to get a reaction from someone whose taste you admire but who may not agree with you on the issues of the day or on the bigger issues of life.

Not hearing from him on the controversial pieces, I decided to send him a short story and a poem I thought he would like. Not too hot, not too cold, perhaps just right. Maybe he needed copy. Maybe for some odd reason submissions to his site were down.

A week later he wrote back and apologized for the delay in getting back to me. He said he liked the work I had just sent, did not mention the controversial pieces, and added that he would be putting his site on hiatus till “after the first of the year.” Then he said, almost as a casual afterword, that he could not recall if he had told me that he has Stage 4 cancer. The email ended on that note.

No, he had not told me that tremulous fact and I mentioned that in my reply. I took a chance and said that if he ever simply wanted to sound off about something, I’d be happy to hear from him. I knew nothing about him or his life so I might be a safe place, I thought, for him to air whatever goes through the mind of someone with Stage 4 cancer.

So far he has not written back.

It will be hard waiting for the “after” that I hope comes “after the first of the year.”

Pink Link Roundup: The Struggle to Affirm the Feminine

As I wait this week for “Santa” to deliver another load of toys for my little man, I’m pondering the devaluation of femininity that stubbornly persists in the two realms where I spend much of my time: parenting and gay male fiction.

Over his short lifetime, the Young Master has already been gifted with a set of golf clubs, two baseball bats, two footballs, three soccer balls, and a set of footie PJs absurdly captioned “Tough Guy”. Only Mommy defied convention and bought him a Barbie, whose favorite activities seem to be dancing and farting. Meanwhile, the toy catalogs crowding my mailbox proclaim, “Gifts for your little princess and action hero!” Inside, I might see photos of both boys and girls playing with sports equipment, science kits, and wheeled vehicles, but the mini kitchens and vacuum cleaners are pink-trimmed and only advertised with girls in the pictures.

Some progressive parenting organizations talk about this problem, but their strategies focus more on including girls in “boy” activities than removing the stigma of girliness. The Center for Commercial-Free Childhood, for instance, does good work keeping advertising out of educational environments, but their “worst toys of the year” list almost always includes my old friend Barbie, because she supposedly makes girls ashamed of their bodies. No, patriarchy does that; pretty women (real or imaginary) are just being who they have a right to be.

I recently rediscovered this 2013 post from Christian feminist and fiction writer A.M. Leibowitz’s Unchained Faith blog, “The Meaning of Pinkhood“:

The Big Questions that always come up are: Why can’t they market toy stoves and tea sets in neutral colors?  Why can’t doll clothes come in blue as well as pink?  Why can’t I find a boy doll?  Why can’t Barbies utter oddly specific action phrases when you push a button on their backs?  Why must all Legos be placed in the boys’ section?

Meanwhile, I’m asking an entirely different set of questions.

Why can’t boys own a full set of My Little Pony figurines?  Why doesn’t Batman say, “Give me a hug!” when you press a button?  Why isn’t it okay for a boy to be featured on the toy stove box, even if it is pink?

We’ve gotten very comfortable asking why the girls’ aisle is hosed in pink and frills while the boys get action and adventure.  We intentionally choose to shop for our daughters among the Legos and Monster Trucks and superheroes.  We’re okay with urging our daughters to try out sports and climb trees and wear any damn thing they want to…

…It seems to me that the reason for this is that we like the erasure of cultural femininity more than we like the erasure of cultural masculinity.

Cultural femininity is seen as weak and bad.  How many of us have gone from feeling stifled by the lack of options to feeling guilty that we still want some (or most) of those feminine things?  How many men feel like they are less, somehow, because they have traits usually associated with women?

It took me a long time to accept that I like the color pink and that I like stories with a little romance.  I sort of felt like I couldn’t even enjoy a Disney princess movie without having to examine its problematic elements first.  This erasure of anything culturally feminine means that in order to survive, I must become more like a man.  But if I become more like a man, not only do I destroy that which is considered feminine in myself, I also end up being told that I actually want to be a man!  Or I’m a bitch or a ball-buster or some other negative term for a woman who isn’t “woman” enough.  Yet if I give up and go home, then my femininity makes me invisible again.  We often don’t have the option of being both culturally feminine and strong…

Go read the whole post. It’s a keeper.

This leads into my other gripe, the misogyny problem in fiction about gay male love. As Gail Dines says in her feminist critique of porn, under patriarchy women are categorized as either “fuckable” or “invisible”. Since, by definition, M/M is about men preferring men to women, the female characters are not “fuckable” in any way that matters to the hypothetical reader. (Because there are no bisexuals out there, right?) I’ve read some novels in this genre with no female characters at all, and some where the women are grotesque caricatures–pathetic fag-hags, smothering moms, ballbusting exes. Neither of these scenarios reflect the real world, where men of all orientations are embedded in a community of female friends, colleagues, and relatives. Ken Murphy’s Sharing Heart is a pleasant exception.

By contrast, Tim Bairstow, whose first novel The Shadow of Your Wings was a gorgeous bittersweet tale of gay Christian self-acceptance, cruelly betrayed his female readers with What Do You Want for Christmas?, where he misses no opportunity to mock the loathsome plus-size body of the hero’s clueless girlfriend. Their sex scene is fat-shaming horror reminiscent of Beowulf in the clutches of Grendel’s Dam.

I think some gay male writers are projecting their shame onto their female characters. They are passing on the legacy of whoever bullied them for being a “sissy”. If you’ve ever watched the old Showtime series “Queer As Folk“, did you notice how the unlikeable gay male characters were portrayed as effeminate weenies, while the protagonists were hyper-masculine studs? Sexism and homophobia are variations on the same awful theme. Women’s love for M/M fiction has the potential to build alliances against oppression, which makes it all the more hurtful when the gender wars resurface there.

Googling “M/M misogyny”, I came across this insightful post by Damon Suede, a gay man who writes romance: “Worse than a girl, better than a woman“.

…Not to say that gay romance is inherently misogynistic, but rather that it seems that much of gay romance writing expresses a deep mistrust and offers harsh criticism of traditional female roles. The girls that heroes are “worse than” seem more like the stereotype of girlhood, and the women that these “better” male/male couplings supplant are the traditional ideas and roles with which women are saddled.

Fans of the genre often remark on their impatience with female characterization in traditional romance fiction… joking that “two hot men are better than one.” But the role of female characters in gay romance remains a bit of a briar patch. Often female characters are not only subordinate in gay romance fiction, they are downright marginalized, lobotomized, or demonized because they serve in roles.

On one hand, it makes sense that in focusing on men who love each other and have sex with each other, that ways of introducing drama and conflict would often rely on the familiar soap-opera tropes of divorce, infidelity, family rejection, single parenting. Many of these situations involve women by default.

It stands to reason: if you want to introduce an infant character, who is the mother? If your hero is divorcing someone, who was she? If his parents appear, who did the childbearing? The core relationship in gay romance fiction is between those two (or more) fellas. By necessity, women in these stories tend to slide into the ruts of sympathetic friend or castrating bitch. Over and over in gay romance we see shrieking harpies angry at their betrayal by “the degenerate faggot(s)” in their life and kooky, supportive gal-pals who want to watch television while they snuggle sexlessly on the couch with their hot-but-unavailable BFF.

Totally logical, if the female character is nice she supports that manlovin’ and cannot and would not intrude with her own sexuality. If she’s not nice, intrusion is the order of the day, complete with near-rapes and/or tantrums and/or recrimination because the evil female always wants to wreck the protagonist and anyone else caught in the self-righteous heterosexist crossfire.

It’s hardly surprising. The sexual charge in gay romance is by definition situated between the male protagonists, so the women at their margins run the risk of disrupting the dynamic at the genre’s core. What’s the simplest solution for an unsteady author?: female characters must be defused, desexed, or dismissed… either as unattractive castrators or as loving-but-nonthreatening bystanders.

Damon, you’ve persuaded me to buy one of your novels on my Kindle. Then I’m going to write an alternate ending to Bairstow’s What Do You Want… where poor “Sally” has a telekinetic meltdown à la Carrie and drowns all the wankers in her vaginal blood.

Merry Christmas, bitches!

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2014

2014 has been a year of self-transformation. I became a redhead and got a lion tattoo. I finished a major revision of the Endless Novel. I hope to finish-finish it for real in early 2015, after I nail down the details of my new poetry book launch and marketing plan. My second full-length poetry book, Bullies in Love, is forthcoming in March from Little Red Tree Publishing. Even the blog got a makeover, migrating from GoDaddy to WordPress with the expert assistance of design firm Tunnel 7.

jendi_finishing_MS_2014

Rearranging my poetry manuscript on the office floor, December 2014.

Why has this year been so good for my creativity and personal growth? Folks, trauma recovery really works. Trust yourself. Phase out relationships with people who gaslight and invalidate you. Find a spiritual practice that makes a safe container for you to feel anger, grief, and the love of God. And try to spend some time roughhousing with a toddler. (Kittens work too.)

Here are some more highlights from this year’s reading, writing, and other discoveries.

Best Poetry Books:

I’ve read so many fine collections this year, it’s hard to choose. Some favorites by Charlie Bondhus, R.T. Castleberry, Heather Christle, Ruth Thompson, and Pam Uschuk have been reviewed and excerpted on Reiter’s Block this year. Other notable books that I didn’t get to feature:

L. Lamar Wilson’s Sacrilegion (Carolina Wren Press, 2014) is a passionate, musical exploration of intersecting identities: black, gay, Southern, Native American, Christian.

Brian Teare’s debut collection The Room Where I Was Born (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) uses dark fairy-tale and gritty Southern Gothic tropes to tell, undermine, and complicate a confessional narrative of sexuality and trauma.

Nin Andrews’s Why They Grow Wings (Silverfish Review Press, 2001) lets loose the divine feminine in magical-realist scenarios that are both playful and politically edgy.

Best Fiction Book:

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown & Co., 2013). This Pulitzer-winning doorstop of a novel received equally intense yays and nays from critics. Based on Northrop Frye’s classic taxonomy of genres, I think Tartt’s detractors make the mistake of treating her books as realist novels when they’re really romances, notwithstanding the super-abundance of contemporary detail. I loved this book because it captured the feeling of growing up in New York City with more dreams than money. Tartt’s New York, like mine, is home to many social classes and subcultures living in close proximity but rarely intersecting. The first half of the book emphasizes the distance between these worlds and the illusions we spin about those who seem more fortunate than ourselves. Then a series of tragicomic twists brings the protagonist out of his grandiose isolation and into a humbled awareness of our common fate.

Best Nonfiction Book:

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). This comprehensive study of racism in the criminal justice system is a must-read, particularly now, following the outcry over police brutality in Ferguson, MO.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

The Priesthood of All Survivors
I want to give and receive the support, spiritual insight, and deep friendship that a shared faith journey can offer. However, as I work towards higher levels of psychological integration and adulthood, I have to be part of a community that’s consciously working the same program. As I choose to break familial patterns of nonconsensual intimacy, I have to be part of a community that’s organized by consent and choice, not guilt-tripping the unchurched.

Why Believe in a Need-less God?
It’s a leap from “God doesn’t need Hir ego stroked”* to “God doesn’t need anything from us.” This doctrine, which we take for granted as orthodoxy, has hidden negative political and pastoral consequences. Because of what I’ve learned from feminist and disability theology, I am compelled to question the equating of “need” with weakness, imperfection, or immature egotism.

Becoming Church: My Field Trip to an Intentional Christian Community
Becoming Church is an umbrella organization for small-group churches (a dozen people maximum) that follow the Church of the Saviour model of “journey inward/journey outward“. Grounded in their faith in Christ, members support each other’s personal spiritual transformation and work together on service projects in [Washington, DC]. Their vision for social change is both radical and humble. Radical, because they want to be used by the Spirit to attack systemic injustice. They’re not content to provide palliative care to the less fortunate, or as they prefer to say, “the under-resourced”. Humble, because they try to operate on God’s timetable, not their own, and eschew ambitious arms’-length initiatives in favor of intensive long-term relationships with a few needy individuals at a time.

Most Useful Discovery:

Peggy Olson cures PTSD.

I’ve binge-watched all 6 1/2 seasons of Mad Men since July. This show’s deep resonance with me deserves its own blog post in the near future. For now, let me just say that Peggy, played by Elisabeth Moss, is the first female character on TV that I really identify with. She’s socially awkward, ambitious, creative, blunt-spoken, willing to make enemies, unashamed of her climb from working-class Brooklyn Catholic schoolgirl to Manhattan ad executive, has a weakness for ugly plaid outfits, and secretly wonders whether she’s failed to perform femininity properly. Near the end of Season 7A, she anticipated the concept of “family of choice” to sell fast-food hamburgers to modern women.

I used to be afraid of my chronic nightmares. Now, before I fall asleep, I imagine Peggy showing up in my dreams to kick ass. That recurring dream about being stranded on the highway? No problem. Peggy will give me a ride and bring bail money, just as she did for Don Draper when he crashed his car on a drunken joyride with his mistress. I’m sleeping much better now.

World’s Cutest Toddler:

shane_reindeer_2014

Happy holidays from Shane!

Poems from Pamela Uschuk’s “Blood Flower”

Pamela Uschuk is a shamanic poet, invoking the spirits of animals, mountains, and forests, to heal a world that humans have spoiled with war and greed. Her latest collection, Blood Flower (Wings Press, 2014), also gives a voice to her family’s ghosts, starting with her Russian immigrant ancestors, and moving on to her late brother and first husband, who were permanently scarred by their service in Vietnam.

I love the specificity of the nature images in Uschuk’s writing. These are not stylized, sentimental birds and flowers. They are “cliff swallows taking needles of twilight/into their open beaks, stitching/sky’s ripped hem.” They are the “red velvet vulva of roses” and “yellow ginkgo leaves/waxy as embalmed fans warm[ing] grave stones”. I can believe that they are just as real as the scenes of atrocities that surround us in the news media. Their beauty pulls a bright thread through the darkest stories she tells.

Among her many accomplishments, Pam is the editor of Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts. Three of the poems in this collection won our 2011 War Poetry Contest at Winning Writers. She has kindly allowed me to reprint two more poems from Blood Flower below.

BLACK SWAN

Inside the photo’s tapestry, your silk sleeves
don’t reveal the slit wrists of madness
or the raw cortex of gang legends I loved—
police bullets slugging your car’s backseat
over my father’s young head as you ran
whiskey from Canada for the Purple Gang.
No one talks about your stints
in Joliet and Jackson Prison after you roped
concrete to a corpse you sank in the Grand River.

Who was he, Grandfather?
I feel cheated. Kto vui?
Who are you? I cannot find
your pauper’s grave.

Like Bogart’s in a film noir
your mouth is a tightset scar.
Did it elide vowels
fluid as trout in a cold stream
tearful over the Firebird’s Tale, or sneer
remembering your father’s ultimatum—
     leave Russia or join the Tsar’s army—
after your tantrum murdered his valet?

Charming pariah pitched across the Atlantic’s green remorse,
you vowed to send back your first son. But,
what promise did you ever keep?
Ellis Island misspelled your name,
deloused you like everyone else.
Russian was the official language
in your American house built with secret
hideaways beneath hollow attic steps, false
bedroom walls, as you tithed
gang money to Orthodox priests.

Grandfather, what purpose can you discern
now your entitled eyes are soil,
your heart going to anthracite?
Through the ghosts of your manicured hands
that never picked up a hammer or saw
pierce my curious roots.

Even in this distant pose, you glide,
the gorgeous black swan that rules
with fierce stiff wings
curled above a charred back, terrorizing
mallards with his hiss—
irresistable bully of the pond.

Cursed by indelible longing
for birch groves, balalaikas, whirling
Mazurkas, despite a day like today when the earth sinks
to its hips in the rare currency of peace, when
chickadees and finches bask
in the season’s final leaf-lit fling,
when squirrels nap after cannonballing
walnuts to the yard, when
nothing,
     nothing in particular
disturbs one molecule of the afternoon,
you smothered your future in Grandma’s yellow kitchen.

What is it in this decaying loam
that makes me cry? What impossible longing,
deformed as swallows reflected in a gazing globe,
when sun seems to illuminate the most stubborn shade?
The same chink in the genes?

Ya Ruskaya, Grandfather; look at the icons I keep—
an inlaid jewelry box from Siberia,
Minsk enameled knives,
the Orthodox cross or your portrait
arranged before the samovar
I carry from house to house.

Thirty-three, you died at thirty-three, syllables
shrill as ax blades sunk into a maple tree,
the same age as your savior
when he was crucified. Horosho.

Grandfather, tell me what fist beat
blue as lacy veins
trapped in our temples,
when you reached for the oven door,
blew out the pilot
     to suffocate our lives?

********

REMEMBERING THE TET OFFENSIVE AS TROOPS SHIP OUT FOR A U.S. ATTACK ON IRAQ
for Roger C. Frank

A fighter jet etches ink white as sperm
on the stark sky while January troops deploy
from Camp LeJeune, just like my first husband
did in 1968 on his way to Viet Nam
to wipe the Commie Gooks off the map.
Before he could spell Khe Sahn, think
massacre, he was machine-gunned
then bayoneted, left to die two days
in a jungle valley of shimmering green bamboo
near the clear stream he couldn’t reach
before the chop chop of the Medevac arrived.
One of three survivors of a whole company
of young marines slaughtered, he wanted to toss
the Purple Heart in the trash.
I remember during the long Michigan winter
his night sweats, the way
he’d shout the apartment walls awake, shake
to the screams of his buddies as they choked
on their own blood, clotted by indifferent flies,
some disemboweled, legs,
arms, faces blasted as frosted poppies.
He’d point to the mean hieroglyphs of red scars,
a pinched cummerbund of bullet
and stab wounds cinching his waist,
then ask me, new bride, too young
to be a Sphinx, the riddle I couldn’t reason out.
What was this for? What for?
as he headed to the kitchen for anesthetic beer,
the amber mattress of whiskey straight.
In three years he joined his company underground.

He was handsome, gung-ho like these teen soldiers
interviewed on CNN, cocky
as oiled M16s, proclaiming
their belief as each generation before them
that they will fight the war to end all wars.
Behind them, wives and girlfriends wave
small American flags that break
in the brittle wind.

Holiday Videos: “Joel the Lump of Coal” and More

It’s beginning to look a lot like…whatever winter holiday you celebrate! Here are some videos to get you in the mood.

This Hanukah song and dance medley is joyful and stylishly performed. I was almost certain I recognized the location as midtown Manhattan, but the YouTube credits say Daley Plaza in Chicago. No wonder I always felt at home in the Windy City.

Contemporary glam-rock band The Killers, better known for singing about obsessive love and murder, made this goofy yet ultimately profound video, “Joel the Lump of Coal“. This might be my favorite Christmas song of the year. I dislike the child-shaming moralism of the Santa myth, which has taken over a holiday that’s supposed to be about God’s forgiving and transforming love. The ending of this song made me think of Jesus’s words, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

Celtic folk band Nowell Sing We Clear performs their signature song “Chariots” in this video, a rousing welcome for the Prince of Peace. Lyrics by John Kirkpatrick below.

O Shepherd O shepherd come leave off your piping
Come listen come learn come hear what I say
For now is the time that has long been forespoken
For now is the time there’ll be new tunes to play
For soon there comes one who brings a new music
Of sweetness and clarity none can compare
So open your heart for the heavenly harmony
Here on this hill will be filling the air

REFRAIN:
With chariots of cherubim chanting
And seraphim singing hosanna
And a choir of archangels a-caroling come
Hallelujah Hallelu
All the angels a-trumpeting glory
In praise of the Prince of Peace

See on yon stable the starlight is shimmering
And glimmering and glistening and glowing with glee
In Bethlehem blest this baby of bliss will be
Born here before you as bold as can be
And you’ll be the first to hear the new symphony
Songs full of gladness and glory and light
So learn your tunes well and play your pipes proudly
For the Prince of Paradise plays here tonight

Bring your sheep bleating to this happy meeting
To hear how the lamb with the lion shall lie
It’s mooing and braying you’ll hear the song saying
The humble and lowly will be the most high
Let the horn of the herdsman be heard up in heaven
For the gates are flung open for all who come near
And the simplest of souls shall sing to infinity
Lift up and listen and you shall hear

The warmonger’s charger will thunder for freedom
The gun-maker’s furnace will dwindle and die
And muskets and sabers and swords shall be sundered
Surrendered to the sound that is sweeping the sky
And the shoes of the mighty shall dance to new measures
And the jackboots of generals shall jangle no more
As sister and brother and father and mother
Agree with each other the end to all war

As a candle can conquer the demons of darkness
As a flame can keep frost from the deepest of cold
So a song can give hope in the depths of all danger
And a line of pure melody soar in your soul
So sing your songs well and sing your songs sweetly
And swear that your singing it never shall cease
So the clatter of battle and drums of disaster
Be drowned in the sound of the pipes of peace

A Long-Overdue Education in Racism: Where to Begin?

As my readers doubtless know from the national news, the killing of unarmed African-American men and boys by white police officers has sparked protest movements across the country, challenging us white Americans to confront our participation in a racist law enforcement system.

On Aug. 9 in Ferguson, MO, Officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown; the grand jury declined to indict Wilson on Nov. 24, even though the conflicting testimony about what happened during the police stop would seem to warrant a jury trial. On July 17 in Staten Island, NY, police stopped Eric Garner for allegedly selling contraband cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo used a chokehold on him that was banned by NYPD rules, suffocating the unarmed and asthmatic Garner. Last week the NY grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 22 in Cleveland, OH, a cop shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun at a playground. Twelve years old. A toy gun. Just think about that for a moment.

These are just two of the many unarmed black men and boys who are killed by the police each year in our “post-racial” society. Activists on Twitter have been posting their names in hashtags but can’t even keep up.

I honestly have not known what to write about this because there isn’t much I can say except “FUCK” and “I’m sorry”.

I’m not bringing this up now to get cookies for being an ally (a title I still have to earn). It’s just reached the point where not saying something would be a sign of not caring. As a white person, I have the dubious privilege of prioritizing other issues. But I don’t want to get off the hook.

I know how much I appreciate it when men believe women about sexism, or when people who’ve had normal families work to overcome their misconceptions about trauma survivors. In doing activism around the issues that affect me personally, I’ve gotten a glimpse of how it feels to suffer from other kinds of prejudice. I want to turn that empathy into effective action, and that starts with listening to African-American voices.

So I’m using the rest of this post to recommend some of the books, websites, and Twitter feeds that are helping me begin my education in racism and racial justice. Please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments.

Important advice: If you’re new to this issue and decide to check out these blogs and Twitter feeds, don’t jump into the conversation right away. Spend a good amount of time just reading and learning how this community sees the world, whether or not you agree. Remember that people are the experts on their own experience. No one is right all the time, but people of color have better attunement to racism than white people do, because they’re on the receiving end.

Books

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010)
Civil rights law professor lays out a devastating case that the criminal justice system created by the War on Drugs is rigged against men of color, at every stage from stop-and-frisk to sentencing.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (HarperCollins, 2014)
Witty novelist and pop-culture critic explores the intersections and contradictions of our cultural myths around race and gender.

bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (South End Press, 1981) and All About Love: New Visions (William Morrow, 2001)
hooks’s passionate first book argues that black women have been doubly marginalized by white feminists and by black men trying to gain status in a patriarchal society. The first chapter, describing the systemic sexual abuse of black women under slavery, is harrowing but a must-read. All About Love is an incisive and uplifting book that proposes that real love is inseparable from justice, seeing and being seen authentically.

Websites

Colorlines is a daily news site about racial justice issues in politics, the arts, and the media, offering award-winning original reporting and news analysis. (Twitter: @Colorlines) Check out this article about how white Americans can unlearn racism.

The Crunk Feminist Collective features black women writers on topics such as media representation, discrimination and micro-aggressions in the workplace, police brutality, and abuses in the criminal justice system. (Twitter: @crunkfeminists)

Dear White People is the Tumblr companion to the 2014 movie, an excellent satire about black students at an elite university and the different strategies they use to navigate around cultural stereotypes and double standards. A book is forthcoming.

Gradient Lair is a womanist blog about black women and art, social media, social politics, and culture. (Twitter: @GradientLair and @TheTrudz)

Political Jesus is a multi-authored Christian theology blog with interests in social justice, science fiction, pop culture, and racial issues in the church. (Twitter: @Political_Jesus)

Twitter

@Karnythia (Mikki Kendall, fiction writer and blogger at hoodfeminism.com)

@ProfessorCrunk (Brittney Cooper, columnist at Salon)

@TaNehisiCoates (Ta-Nehisi Coates, columnist at The Atlantic, author of their 2014 cover story on slavery reparations)

@TheFerocity (Saeed Jones, poet and Buzzfeed LGBT columnist)

@TressieMcPhd (Sociology professor at Emory University, writes about racial issues in academia)

@WritersofColour (Media Diversified, a UK think tank tackling the lack of diversity in media)

Videos from Dead Poets Remembrance Day

This past October I participated in Dead Poets Remembrance Day, an annual reading series organized by Walter Skold of Dedgar.org. Walter is on a mission to host tribute readings at all the graves of notable poets in the U.S. He is working on a documentary that will incorporate video of these readings and other anecdotes of the poets’ lives.

I live across the street from a historic cemetery where Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali is buried. Ali, who was a beloved professor at U Mass Amherst, introduced American writers to the classical Indo-Islamic poetic form known as the ghazal. On the afternoon of my reading, there was a torrential rainstorm, which was the perfect (if noisy) backdrop for two poems from Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals: “Even the Rain” and “After You”.

We are left mute and so much is left unnamed after you–
No one is left in this world to be blamed after you.

Someone has disappeared after christening Bertha–
Shahid, will a hurricane ever be named after you?

Now from Miami to Boston Bertha is breaking her bones–
I find her in the parking lot. She says, “I’m blamed after you.”

The Deluge would happen–it was claimed–after you
But the world did go on, unashamed, after you

ANDREW BERTHA CHARLES DAVID ELLA FLOYD GEORGE
but S comes so late in the alphabet that although
SHAHID DEVASTATES FLORIDA is your dream headline,
no hurricane will ever be named after you.

Agha Shahid Ali “Even The Rain” at his grave from Walter Skold on Vimeo.

Flash Fiction by Donal Mahoney: “Big Thanksgiving Snow”

The first snow of the winter is blanketing our Western Massachusetts region today, the day before Thanksgiving, which makes this a perfect time to post this short-short story by Reiter’s Block contributor Donal Mahoney. Enjoy, and drive safely.

Big Thanksgiving Snow

by Donal Mahoney

 

“Sometimes Jesus walked around with a big staff, just like me,” Mrs. Day says to herself as she looks at the frayed picture on her kitchen wall just above the little kitchen table. She cut that picture out of a magazine 50 years ago when she subscribed to Life and Look and Colliers magazines.

“Jesus doesn’t need that staff,” Mrs. Day tells herself. “It was a sunny day in Jericho, the article said. I’ll bet He used that staff to go up in the hills to pray. The Bible says He often left the apostles behind to go away and pray. I’d have kept an eye on Him if I was there.”

At 80 Mrs. Day is legally blind with one good leg. She has a staff of her own to help her walk to stores and then back to her little house. The staff is at least a foot taller than she is. It was a gift from a dead neighbor who was handy with tools and liked to carve and whittle. Mrs. Day needs that staff this Thanksgiving Day as she makes her way through drifts of snow, an unusual amount for this first big winter holiday.

With nothing in the fridge except old bread and prunes, Mrs. Day hopes to find a diner open. Even Jack in the Box is closed for Thanksgiving so there will be no coffee with a Breakfast Jack to go but Mrs. Day has time today to find a place that is open. And she knows that place will probably be Vijay’s Diner, where she’s a customer on days when every other place is closed.

Vijay came to the United States long ago when Mumbai was still Bombay. He cooks for everyone every day of the year, whatever God they worship or ignore. He makes fine Indian dishes for customers who emigrated from India as he did. And he makes fine American cuisine for people from the neighborhood, most of whom have yet to adjust to Indian dishes and their redolent spices.

“I have a nice turkey leg, Mrs. Day, if you’d like that,” he says, but all she wants is coffee, two sugars and a muffin to go.

“I’m on a diet,” she tells him.

Vijay puts her items in a small brown bag and adds a free candy bar, a Baby Ruth bar, a big one, for later tonight. Mrs. Day will be angry when she gets home and finds it but that’s okay. She can’t come out at night to look for something to eat. It’s tough enough for her to get around in sunlight.

Vijay waits for Mrs. Day to dig in her big purse and put all of her change on the counter. Then they count aloud together each coin that he picks up one at a time. Finally they agree he has the right amount even though Mrs. Day has trouble seeing the coins. Usually she can tell which are which by the feel of them. Now Vijay smiles at Mrs. Day, his customer on the holidays only.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Day,” he says. “I hope you’ll come again. We’ll have leg of lamb on Christmas. And ham and yams on New Year’s Eve. I’ll make you a nice big sandwich. I know you’ll like it. You can skip the diet for one day.”

30 Poems in November: Your Turkey Day Reminder

Are you thankful that you can read this? Give the gift of literacy to new immigrants, and sponsor me in my 30 Poems in November fundraiser.

Here is today’s poem for your enjoyment. Have a tasty holiday!

Ode to Butternut Squash

Butternut squash, you are the War and Peace of vegetables.
So heavy, traditional, symbolic of grand ambitions unfulfilled.
Delusional, even, like Napoleon’s drive to conquer Russia,
which is what I assume Tolstoy’s classic is about,
though like most Americans tucking into their giblets this holiday,
I’ve never cracked the book on display in my living room.
Butternut squash, is this your destiny too?
Like the little Corsican exiled on Elba,
will you shrivel and sag in my refrigerator,
Thanksgiving come and gone, nothing to hope for
except that this time I’ll mean it when I glimpse you
behind the milk and say to myself,
“I really should cook that before it goes bad”?
Butternut squash, my knife shrinks from sawing into your rind,
your brute firmness, flesh pink and unmarked,
sized to give Anna Karenina the shivers.
I do not have the conquering spirit.
Because I am afraid, butternut squash,
that even if I can cut you in half without losing a finger,
and you yield your virgin territory
to be encrusted with sugared pecans like a Fabergé egg,
and I find the patience to bake you at 350 degrees
for longer than it takes to say “Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky”,
my guests, who have never starved in the siege of Moscow,
will not be grateful for your sacrifice
and fill up on pie instead.