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  • I am sure of nothing but this

    My friend’s father has died. Last week, as it was happening — as she and her family spent agonizing hours of waiting and wondering at the hospital — I searched for the words to write to her. I was at a loss, so I kept typing the same things again and again in my texts: Thinking about you. Love you. Just checking in.

    It wasn’t enough.

    “I wasn’t sure of the right thing to say”; “I’m sure I said all the wrong things” — sentiments we all have heard, and said, during times like these. What I learned many years ago was that I wouldn’t remember anyone saying the wrong thing, but I sure as hell would remember who said nothing.

    So I continued to text the same things and searched for what I wanted to really say instead.

    I bought a Mary Oliver collection and looked for it there. I read this one poem, “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses,” and cried, because it was exactly right, and completely wrong. Anyway, it goes like this:

    I step into the painting of the four blue horses.
    I am not even surprised that I can do this.
    One of the horses walks toward me.
    His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm
    over his blue mane, not holding on, just
    commingling.
    He allows me my pleasure.
    Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.
    I would rather die than explain to the blue horses
    what war is.
    They would either faint in horror, or simply
    find it impossible to believe.
    I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
    Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
    Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
    is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
    Now all four horses have come closer,
    are bending their faces toward me
    as if they have secrets to tell.
    I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t.
    If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what
    could they possibly say?

    I didn’t send her the poem, because I was incapable of articulating how Franz Marc and his blue horses and Mary Oliver felt exactly like the hope I wanted her to feel in this time of deep despair, the beginnings of grief. I tried to write, but wrote a shitty poem instead. I read a book. I felt angry at the world that would make my kind friend ever have to sit in a hospital room and wait and wonder.

    I didn’t feel good about the outcome. I tried to think positive thoughts, but I knew too much. I’ve been in that kind of room before.

    So I read more Mary Oliver.

    *

    Recently another friend said to me, “This album will always make me think about this time.” I was playing the new The War on Drugs and I knew exactly what she meant.

    *

    This week I’ve been listening to Shannon Lay, a singer I just discovered. I’ve listened to her new album, Living Water, every night, and thought: “This album will always make me think about this time.”

    The sparseness of it, the melancholy — listening to it feels like reading that Mary Oliver poem. But I wasn’t going to send my friend songs like “Orange Tree” or “The Moons Detriment” and try to explain what the hell that could possibly have to do with what she’s going through.

    Although, like the Pitchfork reviewer wrote,Living Water is shot through with a kind of ragged hope—not optimism, exactly, but a determined belief in the power of that life force to pull us all toward something like transcendence.”

    So, it makes total sense and no sense at all — pretty much exactly like what it feels like to lose a parent. You think you’ll know. You don’t know. And then you do.

    *

    This morning I was eating avocado toast cause I’m a real asshole like that and as I stared at my cat Mufasa staring at me, this Frank O’Hara poem popped to mind and I thought I had it — the right words for these feelings. And also fittingly, a poem with a reference to avocado toast.

    I’m so brilliant in the mornings!

    Turns out, the poem, fittingly called “Poem,” doesn’t have a reference to avocado toast at all and doesn’t make any more sense than Mary Oliver talking about stepping into a painting of horses.

    Here it goes:

    Light clarity avocado salad in the morning

    after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is

    to find forgiveness and love, not even forgiveness

    since what is done is done and forgiveness isn’t love

    and love is love nothing can ever go wrong

    though things can get irritating boring and dispensable

    (in the imagination) but not really for love

    though a block away you feel distant the mere presence

    changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper

    and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement

    I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing

     

    *

    I’ll probably never know the right thing to say, and maybe none of us ever will. But as we all search for the words, what counts most is the feeling behind it. I am sure of nothing but this.

  • "And when I begin to believe I haven't left"

    I Don't Miss It 
    BY TRACY K. SMITH


    But sometimes I forget where I am,
    Imagine myself inside that life again.

    Recalcitrant mornings. Sun perhaps, 
    Or more likely colorless light

    Filtering its way through shapeless cloud.

    And when I begin to believe I haven’t left,
    The rest comes back. Our couch. My smoke

    Climbing the walls while the hours fall.
    Straining against the noise of traffic, music,

    Anything alive, to catch your key in the door.
    And that scamper of feeling in my chest,

    As if the day, the night, wherever it is
    I am by then, has been only a whir

    Of something other than waiting.

    We hear so much about what love feels like.
    Right now, today, with the rain outside,

    And leaves that want as much as I do to believe
    In May, in seasons that come when called,

    It’s impossible not to want
    To walk into the next room and let you

    Run your hands down the sides of my legs,
    Knowing perfectly well what they know.

  • "Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy."

    "Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy."

    Langston Hughes was born on this day in 1902. In 1926, he wrote an essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which, according to The Poetry Foundation, was "seen by many as a cornerstone document articulation of the Harlem renaissance."

    Here is an excerpt. Happy birthday Langston Hughes, one of the first poets I studied and fell in love with, whose work continues to help me view the world in new ways, outside of my own limited perspective. Thank you.

    From "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"

    "Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks. How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret? Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so many jazz poems?

    But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it, The old subconscious 'white is best' runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations—likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. She doesn’t care for the Winold Reiss portraits of Negroes because they are 'too Negro.' She does not want a true picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all Negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be. But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering 'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of his people, to 'Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro—and beautiful'?

    So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, 'I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,' as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange un-whiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.

    Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing Water Boy, and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

  • #NoBanNoWall

    #NoBanNoWall

    "How to reason with nature?

    And how to ignore a wall?

    Try risking nothing.
    Look up to the palm tree tops. Look down across the sugar cane and cotton.
    Look anywhere, but do no make direct eye contact
    with the wall, or if you must, stand so close
    that the eyes blur and you can no longer see it.

    Keep calm and just keep eating.
    Don't ask where your food comes from
    or who picks or prepares it—
    about Monsanto,
    about how the rich got rich,
    or who the gatekeepers are.

    Do not look up the words
    social or justice in the dictionary."

    — Excerpt, "How to Ignore a Wall," by Amalia Ortiz, Rant. Chant. Chisme.

  • "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark"

    Conversations About Home
    (at the Deportation Centre) 

    by Warsan Shire

    Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I've been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can't afford to forget.

    *

    They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you're young and asleep. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on my face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck; I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.

    *

    I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home. But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth.

    *

    I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second; the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I'll see you on the other side.

    --

    from Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth