Book Notes: The Doll Collection

doll_collection_cover“Not just toys, dolls signify much more than childhood,” writes poet Nicole Cooley in her introduction to The Doll Collection (Terrapin Books, 2016), a rich and complex anthology of doll-themed contemporary poetry edited by Diane Lockward. Dolls are imbued with our powerful, contradictory feelings about gender, race, class, mortality, and innocence. “Symbols of perfection, they both comfort and terrify… They are objects we recall with intense nostalgia but also bodies we dismember and destroy.”

Collecting dolls has been as much of a constant in my life as writing poetry. Both pursuits take me to the realm of imagination, where one is never “too grown-up” to communicate with one’s fantasies and fears. I was honored to have my poem “The Fear of Puppets and the Fear of Beautiful Women” included in this anthology, together with notable writers such as Denise Duhamel, Jeffrey Harrison, Enid Shomer, Cecilia Woloch, and many more.

The book stands out for its diverse cast of characters from doll history. Alongside the well-known Barbie, GI Joe, Mr. Potato Head, Ginny, and Raggedy Ann, we meet paper dolls of the Dionne Quintuplets, blow-up sex toys, jewel-box ballerinas, anatomical models, artists’ miniatures, teddy bears, and baby dolls in many stages of porcelain perfection or grotesque dismemberment. Dolls are burned, smashed, stolen, repaired, reconstituted like Frankenstein. They are preserved in museums, or in the homes of their now-grown owners, as a focal point for sweet or regretful family memories. The dolls in these poems remind us of love or its hard unsatisfying simulacrum, of fragility or a taunting imperviousness to time and loss.

“The dolls/are always being picked up and placed/by forces outside their control./Words are put into their mouths,” writes Elaine Terranova in the poem “Secrets”. Dolls give us the opportunity to act out both sides of the power dynamic, to identify with early memories of helplessness or vent our rage on someone who can’t really feel it…can she?

Several selections voiced the feelings of children confused or stifled by an adult agenda. “I was the live birth after the stillborn/one, crowned to be Mother’s little doll,” says the speaker of Joan Mazza’s “Little Doll”. Comparing herself to the identically-dressed doll children in her carriage, she says, “Undressed, baby dolls had smooth bodies,/no crevices. I’d be perfect, never play,/an untouched doll, if mother had her way.” By the poem’s end, “mother” is lowercase, suggesting the young girl’s rebellion. Michael Waters’ “Burning the Dolls” starts from a poignant historical anecdote: “In 1851, in John Humphrey Noyes’ free-love settlement in Oneida, New York, the communally-raised children, encouraged by the adults, voted to burn their dolls as representative of the traditional role of motherhood.” The child narrator lays her beloved rag doll on the pyre, but a lot more goes up in flames: “when her varnished face burst/in the furnace of my soul,/the waxy lips forever lost,//then I knew I’d no longer pray,/even with fire haunting me…”

Conversely, for some other poets, dolls represented childhood feelings of safety and trust, which the adult speakers wish they could recapture. In “When Catholics Believed in Limbo”, Mary Ellen Talley recalls a simple faith that led her and her friends to baptize her Little Women dolls. Lee Upton’s “To Be Blameless Is to Be Miniature” searches for a way back in to the dolls’ perfect world: “No one sleeps./No one gets comfortable here./You cannot stand inside innocence.” Alison Townsend begins her prose-poem “Madame Alexander’s Amy” with the line, “Two weeks after my mother’s death, the doll was waiting under the tree.” The speaker wanted to love this last gift from her mother, and in a way she did, but the doll (which she still owns) was also “an emissary from the country of death to tell me that childhood was over, and she was the last plaything”.

David Trinidad’s “Playing with Dolls” and Scott Wiggerman’s “Playing GI Joes” show the awakening of a gay identity through breaking the gender boundaries around toys. While Trinidad’s sestina ends sadly, with his parents forbidding him to play with his sisters’ Barbies (“You’re a boy”), we know he gets the last laugh because he’s now a well-regarded gay poet. Wiggerman’s delightful narrative reveals how hyper-macho toys have a homoerotic side just waiting for the right person to bring it out. His GI Joe likes “hot little loincloths attached with a pin” and volunteers for missions where he’ll be stripped and put into bondage. “Tied up, disciplined, tortured into a frenzy,/he was a master of man-to-man endurance,/revealing only name, rank, and serial number,/as a sly grin edged toward the scar on his cheek,/a mark that covered so many of our secrets.”

These are just a few highlights. Doll aficionados will find their own favorites in this must-have collection of 80+ poems about our uncanny little friends.

doll_collection_book_1

Olivia, Agnes, and Emily approve of this book.

doll_collection_book_2

A new soldier in town impresses Rose Sauvage-Grimpante with his interest in poetry.

June Links Roundup: Bathroom Walls

Bathrooms and discrimination have a long history together in America. Restricting bathroom access is a way to limit a minority group’s freedom of movement and their ability to exist in the public sphere. The debate over access can taint the minority group by association with the taboo subject of bodily functions, reinforcing the prejudice that these bodies are contaminated or inappropriately visible.

Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel The Help has been fairly criticized for centering a white-savior character, but my eyes and heart were opened by its depiction of the everyday indignities suffered by African-American domestic workers in the South in the 1960s. A flash point in the novel is one bigoted white woman’s campaign to make her Junior League cronies build separate outdoor toilets for their nonwhite employees. This arbitrary rule served no purpose but to signal the unworthiness of certain bodies, to punish them for having the most basic human needs.

Similarly, in Matt Ruff’s excellent new horror/satire novel Lovecraft Country, set in the Jim Crow 1950s, one of the main characters publishes The Safe Negro Travel Guide, the product of sometimes life-threatening research into which towns, motels, gas station bathrooms, and restaurants will tolerate African-American travelers. The protagonists’ run-ins with a secret society of white occultists are less troublesome than the effort to find a safe place to pee on a road trip between Florida and Illinois. The rules are set up to make it physically impossible for a black person to not break the law: either you’re arrested for using a white bathroom, or for loitering when you pull over to use the bushes.

This history should make us skeptical of the current manufactured panic over transgender bathroom use. I personally would prefer not to pee in bathrooms where anyone, of whatever gender expression, is using a urinal without walls around it, but I think it’s ridiculous and offensive to suggest that gendered bathrooms protect people from rapists. See, for example, this anonymous guest column for the British blog The Queerness, “Toilet transphobia: Sexual assault is not your weapon to wield” (trigger warning for rape description). The author was victimized in the public restroom of a bar:

I am a cisgender gay man. I was attacked by another man. This means that I am forced to undergo an incredibly painful process of re-adaptation to what should be the very banal everyday task of relieving myself when not in the comfort of my own home.

This is why I am so angry at those that would seek to deny trans people the right to use the appropriate toilets. It infuriates me that transphobes would effectively appropriate the trauma of sexual assault for their own nefarious purposes…

…The bottom line is this: I do not have the option of banning other men from public toilets on the grounds that men sometimes sexually assault other men there. Even if there were documented incidents of trans women assaulting cisgender women in such environments (there are literally none), the heinous actions of a minority should never lead to the collective punishment of an entire group. Terrible deeds are perpetrated by terrible people in a variety of scenarios and in all manner of circumstances.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed columnist Shannon Keating connects the dots between civil rights issues then and now, in the recent piece “The Past Hundred Years of Gender-Segregated Public Restrooms”. Keating notes that separate women’s facilities (often inadequate compared to the number of men’s toilets in the same workplace) were first added to public buildings in the late 19th century because of Victorian paternalism towards white women in particular:

As women became more active in various aspects of public life, they had to be fitted into the interstitial spaces of a world that had not been built for them. (Male) architects and (male) city planners began to section off areas for them to exist out in the world, but without radically disrupting the precious social fabric of Man’s Land. These male decision-makers created separate spaces for women in everything from railroad cars to department stores to post offices…

…But of course, these comfortable, domestic, and hygienic safe havens were only ever afforded to white women. Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms. As Gillian Frank detailed last November for Slate, the perceived sexual threat of sharing bathrooms with black people was coupled with a sanitary one — white women “emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” While separate women’s restrooms were indeed the product of sexist beliefs regarding women’s fragility and (lack of) power, white women were still afforded far more favorable restroom conditions than women of color — conditions they maintained for themselves through racist fearmongering.

Keating goes on to observe that our current bathroom arrangements also protect traditional masculinity at the expense of women and queer people. Our favorite movies reinforce the problem:

Public restrooms — and, perhaps even more strongly so, locker rooms — have always operated in the cultural imagination as sites of strict gender roles and compulsive heterosexuality…

…popular culture has long established tropes associated with each restroom. The men’s room is a place for aggressive macho posturing, bullying the weak, and artfully avoiding eye contact; women’s rooms, meanwhile, are hyper-feminine places for girls to get primped, gossip, cry, and avoid boys — boys who, in turn, fantasize about what goes on behind the closed girls’ room door. A number of ’80s teen movies, from Pretty in Pink to Porky’s to Fame, include scenes (which have inspired countless others) involving guys attempting to see into or enter the girls’ bathroom — and they either play the attempt for laughs or treat deeply creepy peeping Tom behavior with a cavalier “boys will be boys” shrug. While queer men in bathrooms are a threat, straight men are just guys doing what guys do.

In the shift from drama and comedy to horror, the bathroom becomes ground zero for violence against women. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho,the most famous bathroom scene in cinematic history involves a woman in the shower getting stabbed to death by Norman Bates, a notoriously genderqueer bad guy. In what’s arguably the other most famous bathroom scene of all time, The Shining’s Jack corners Wendy in the bathroom and proceeds to hack his way in. David Cronenberg’s Shivers, from 1975, features an absolutely repulsive scene involving a parasite that crawls up the bathroom drain and between a woman’s legs. And speaking of ’80s teen movies again, Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street gets an unwelcome visit from Freddy Krueger while she’s in the bath. If they want to avoid spiders and grudge monsters, women in horror films would do best to avoid the bathroom altogether. These scenes manage to sexualize the vulnerable and violated female body, while also suggesting that the Victorian paternalism of yore might still apply according to the fantastical versions of our modern conceptions: Women still need protecting.

Hollywood’s depiction of the bathroom reveals it to be one of the most powerful physical and social spaces when it comes to both revealing and informing our cultural anxieties around gender, bodily shame, abjection, disease, and sexual deviance. Just as the Equal Rights Amendment lost essential footing in the ’70s due to infamous counterprotestsclaiming that banning gender discrimination would result in unisex toilets (which, protesters cried, would enable sexual predators), so, too, have today’s social conservatives driven anti-trans panic by insisting that gender-neutral bathrooms would give (queer/trans) aggressors free rein to prey on girls. The mixing of genders in bathrooms, so our pop-cultural scripts go, results in awkward gags at best and rape and murder at worst. Anti-trans bathroom bills are, in part, the product of pop culture’s queerphobic and transphobic scripts…

…What we actually take for granted is why, exactly, public restrooms are segregated in the first place. We assume building codes are purely objective, rooted in science and dictated by function. Separated restrooms, in their guise of objectivity, only manage to reinforce age-old essentialist notions of binary gender difference. What would it mean to break down those walls?

The predator bogeyman — the impetus behind a million anti-trans petition signatures; a villain as potent, and as pretend, as Freddy Krueger — is not at the true heart of the bathroom maelstrom. Those who oppose equitable bathrooms are presumably far more afraid of what trans people represent than the nonexistent physical threat they pose. The expansive, complex, never-ending potential of gender, which separated bathrooms have veiled with the lie of their form-follows-function objectivity, is arguably what anti-trans protesters are trying to suppress — along with, of course, the fundamental fact of trans people’s humanity. Under the pretense of “privacy” and “safety,” social conservatives are stoking cultural anxieties around bodily privacy, genitalia, and sexual deviance in order to keep trans people from participating in the public sphere, a fate of bathroom exclusion that befell women, people of color, families, and disabled people before them. The bogus fear of an aggressor is, at root, most likely the fear of the Other gaining power.

Right now in my home state of Massachusetts, the Senate has passed an important bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, stores, hospitals, transportation, etc.). The House will hear debate on this legislation on June 1. Look for #TransBillMA on Twitter and visit the Freedom Massachusetts website for updates. If you live in MA and are transgender or gender-nonconforming, Freedom Massachusetts can use your stories of how you’ve been affected by discrimination in public places. Please contact them. Everyone else, talk to your legislators, and donate to support this historic campaign.

 

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.

Stations of the Cross: Mental Illness

Christian artist Mary Button’s annual series of “Stations of the Cross” collage-paintings depict the torture and execution of Christ in the context of a social justice issue. For instance, last year’s Stations took on the injustice of mass incarceration in America. The 2015 series is devoted to mental illness. In the artist’s words, it “addresses the cross-cutting theological implications of the treatment of people with mental illness. Individual stations address both the special gifts and insight of people living with mental illness as well as social justice issues such as race, gender, homelessness, and stigma.” Read her interview about this year’s project in the Huffington Post.

Each image, with artist’s commentary, can be viewed on Flickr. I was struck by the fact that these pictures are gorgeous with color and creative energy, while also being chaotic and sometimes scary. Button portrays the creativity of mania, the allure of the special and mysterious chambers of the mind, as well as the cost of getting lost in that labyrinth. Surely many of Jesus’s contemporaries must have thought he was crazy! Those who explore the frontier of spiritual experience often seem so, especially when their confidence in their inner truth sets them at odds with their family and their society’s interpretive authorities.

Some of these pictures show Jesus sharing the suffering of depression and schizophrenia, while others, such as “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”, critique the mental health system’s complicity in sexism and other oppressions. Several deal with suicide as a political consequence of racism and veterans’ PTSD. I would have liked to see childhood trauma and its aftermath explicitly included, but even so, survivors can certainly find a lot to identify with in this series.

Two Poems from Carmine Dandrea’s “In a Kept World”

Carmine Dandrea is a retired English professor, Korean War veteran, and world traveler whose diverse life experiences inform his award-winning poetry. The work he has published with us at Winning Writers spans a train ride across India, a pilgrimage along China’s historic Silk Road, and a child’s memories of an Italian-American family funeral.

In contrast to these world travels, his latest chapbook from Finishing Line Press, In a Kept World, takes the reader on an inner journey of introspection, grief, and hope. This 17-poem cycle is voiced by a solitary older man inside a house in Michigan in deep winter. As the “prime suspect” of his own examinations, he reflects on mortality and time wasted. Women from his past reappear as nameless sirens and ghosts, arousing both desire and regret that he did not value their intimacy enough. Despite the assaults of unforgiving weather and the temptation to succumb to darkness, he also finds moments of sensual joy and radiance in the ordinary furnishings of his monastic cell. The recurring image of the garden comes to represent not only the literal promise of spring but the “seeds of love” and “sureness of life” that he wants another chance to cultivate in his soul.

Carmine has kindly allowed me to reprint the two poems below.

 

Snow’s Role

A heavy wind is blowing
off Lake Michigan;
there is nothing but darkness
to stop it on its way;
it roams the corners of the house
like some fast beast of prey
unleashed until the break of day.

The wind has done strange things
with snow,
has made it go in ripples
through the field,
has molded it peculiarly,
fitting it like fleece
to the bark-dark trunks of trees.

Snow is a warfare for my mind.
It lies here,
a barrier to the world.
I want to close my mind to it,
to let it stay outside
the tight parameters of light
around my planted fields;
yet I know that snow
must have its role
in plotting gardens,
even though it slows
the heart that’s beating
in the summer sun.

But I must remember
that day has passed
into the night.

The snow has filled the ugly field
across the ugly street;
the railroad tracks beyond
are slick runners
disappearing out of sight.

********

Fire in the Cave

How cold the darts of winter rain
that cut up light—
points that pierce naked bone
and make the bone like stone,
sore with winter weather.

The sun shining through
persimmon curtains casts
that semblance
of the fire in the cave
where my mind,
intent on artifacts,
is ecstasized with little things:

the chaste silver catching light
upon a slender throat;
the slight uncertain gleam
seen in an eye half-closed;
the degree of pressure
in another’s touch;
a soft finger on the lip,
an eyelash trembling
on a cheek,
a slight lilac breath
caught in the ear’s conch.

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…

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.

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)

Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “Many Years Later When I Meet Her Again”

This week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review decisions from three federal appeals courts that had overturned state laws banning same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. By letting these decisions stand, the high court effectively legalized same-sex marriage in these states, and put it on track to be legalized in the other states under the jurisdiction of the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuit Courts of Appeal. Marriage bans in Colorado, Kansas, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming will probably be invalidated by the Circuit Court rulings. This story from the Pew Research Center lays out the implications.

This news was on our longtime contributor Donal Mahoney’s mind when he shared the following poem with me.

Many Years Later When I Meet Her Again

Many years later when I meet her again
on my way out of the Russian Tea Room
I notice how beautiful she is dining with him,
a man more attentive than I was back then.

But I see chaos dancing in her eyes
and I wonder if she has told him.
I doubt she has since she needed
ten years to tell me.

I accept the offer to join them for dessert,
and when she goes to the powder room,
I have a nice chat with her newest suitor.
He’s as decent as the others have been.

On her return, he leaves to use his cell phone
and that’s when, struggling for words, I say
“If you meet the right one, you can get married
in many states and more are likely to come.”

Christian Blog Roundup: Incarnational Boundaries, Rethinking Outreach, and More

I read Christian blogs and Twitter feeds nearly every day, and periodically email myself the standout articles that give me ideas to write about. Time pressures being what they are, a lot of these ideas hang about in my inbox for months, never quite finding the right occasion for a full post. So here is a links roundup, loosely connected around themes of Christian psychology and the balance between self-care and service.

Maybe We Should Stop ‘Doing Outreach’“: The Rev. Cathie Camaino, an Episcopal priest who blogs as Father Cathie (read her wonderful explanation here), proposes that churches should stop thinking of “service” as organized programs for helping outsiders, and face our fears of sharing our own needs with our fellow members.

“Learning to be vulnerable enough to give and receive is ministry…Engaging with our faith such that it stirs up our compassion, generosity, and courage to be vulnerable is certainly the work of the church. How this happens may not be. It seems that in our congregational life, at least as much energy is put towards the organization and scheduling of ‘outreach’ programs, the recruitment of volunteers, and the promotion of service, than is actually spent doing the work to which we have been called. Maybe the church is not the place to create the programs (which are often duplicated, in much better ways, by other organizations) but the place to ground ourselves in our Christian faith such that we feel the call to serve.”

Incarnational Boundaries“: Progressive evangelical writer Zach J. Hoag contends that our churches would be emotionally healthier if we took Christ’s embodiment more seriously. We become lost in theories and systems, and don’t pay attention to the ways that abusers exploit our simplistic moralism.

“I see Jesus affirming the embodied human experience of that which is emotionally healthy and unhealthy, safe and unsafe. In fact, I see Jesus practicing healthy boundaries in his work with people that reveals the often manipulative, abusive, and harmful ways that people treat each other (which often causes so much emotional and psychological pain and damage). And this Way of Jesus confronts our ideological, neo-gnostic ways as evangelicals.

See, we are very good at creating unsafe environments where harmful and abusive behaviors are explained away using flat theological categories like sin, pride, faith, prayer, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, leadership, headship, submission, etc. Thus,we don’t respond to these behaviors appropriately nor protect those victimized or potentially affected by them. And, these behaviors are often coming from leaders who are protected as those endorsed by God. Further, we often force the value of ‘community’ onto relationships in the church in such a way that puts people in unsafe or even violating situations.

When we interpret Jesus’s words through his Way, however, we see a different picture. Instead of mandated ‘reconciliation’, we see that there can be no grace, and thus no real reconciliation, without the truth. And, though we always pursue and remain passionate about reconciliation, the reality is that the truth just might bring division, not reconnection. (Forgiveness is another matter, as it requires only one party engaging in a process of releasing bitterness toward the offender.) Matthew 18:15-20 describes a process of truth-telling that may result in the offender not hearing – and thereby being deemed unsafe.

If we mandate things simply by looking at the words of Jesus or the Apostles and drawing out ideological categories, then we may very well continue to produce communities of obligation racked with unhealthy dynamics rather than safe, healthy churches. And if the gospel is bringing us to greater wholeness, showing us what it means to be truly human in the Messiah, then an incarnational church will preach and practice the healthy boundaries that Jesus himself embodied.

Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting“: When psychology professor and theologian Richard Beck shared the stage with a trauma expert at a Fuller Theological Seminary lecture series, they explored how the Christian ideal of self-emptying (kenosis) must have a different interpretation for the abused and oppressed, i.e. people whose selves have already been crushed or never allowed to form. Beck proposes:

“…what is being emptied is the hero system–the ways we have internalized social and cultural standards of significance versus insignificance, success versus failure, worthiness versus unworthiness, light versus darkness, pure versus defiled, whole versus damaged. The ’emptying’ of kenosis is becoming indifferent to, dying to, this hero system…

The only difference is where we find ourselves within the hero system. For many the hero system places us on top. At the top, self-esteem and social respect are easy pickings. But the call of Jesus is to become indifferent to all this.  That is experienced as a ‘descent’ of sorts.

But for others, the hero system places them at the very bottom. And all too often, this is internalized. You feel that you ‘deserve’ to be at the bottom, deserve the abuse. Because you are insignificant, damaged, unworthy, and full of darkness and pollution.

It’s a toxic situation, this internalized self-loathing, but it’s still the hero system. It’s just the opposite pole, the shadow side. The hero system is still the way the self is being evaluated, even if it is full of self-loathing and self-destruction.

So an emptying has to occur. The hero system–that internalized filth and shit–has to be poured out. Vomited out.

Come to think about it now, this is an emptying that, psychologically speaking, looks very much like an exorcism. Demons–destructive psychological/spiritual darkness–are being cast out, emptied out.

White Men, Submission, and the Kingdom of God“: And on a related note, Christian author and blogger Dan J. Brennan expands on a comment by Christian feminist writer Julie Clawson about how the language of “dying to self” can reinforce patriarchy:

“Which man or woman, dealing with self-contempt, dealing with chronic self-contempt, wants a steady diet within their church pulpit and church social media, ‘You must die to self, you must submit your voice to others because we’re all guilty of self-exaltation’?  I myself, deeply wrestled with chronic self-contempt for years and sermonic appeals to trust God, etc. did not help. For years I did not wrestle with Niebuhrian pride. I wrestled with self-contempt, wrestling with shame wondering how God could love me.

Because of my history, I cringe when I see white male leaders so tightly knit death to self with submission in their ecclesiology and spirituality without a healthy understanding that in the 21st century Niebuhrian pride is not all there is to self-understanding. Niebuhrian pride is not a universal experience for all people. It’s probably not even at the heart of most postmoderns. It’s certainly not at the heart of many women and minorities. White male leaders like this can keep good Christian (and nonChristian) therapists with an unending list of clients wrestling with self-contempt.

They can also promote systemic sin as Julie noted.

It’s challenging and heartbreaking when you see good white men with good hearts come to grips with their genuine Niebuhrian pride and then they want to universalize it for everyone else in their sermons, tweets, and social media.

Read Brennan’s follow-up post here.