Her scars I don’t
love I worship
my gods my maps my cruel
universe draws me in close
enough to stab slow so slow
epicenter of the gods of my own
Not pink-fade on knee from
first bike hitting tree not
dime-dimple of TB not
hairless strip from oven rack burn
not missing bit of finger pad taken by edge
of glass in broken pane
Gravity well black hole dark
matter what’s the matter? god
particle time portal Big
… poetry has never fully disengaged itself from its associations with shamanism; the poet, like the shaman, has mastered certain techniques – rhythmic, performative, imagistic, metaphoric – that summon the unconscious part of the mind, so that, in this dreamlike state between waking and sleeping, we may discover more about our thoughts and feelings than we would otherwise be able to do.
In my Facebook feed this morning I found this great piece from singer/songwriter/rocker/Blues goddess Nedra Johnson about the first time she went snorkeling and about well-meaning white folks who don’t really get racism. Her entire post is below, here’s a taste:
It would be nice though if well meaning, yet racist, people started being willing to put their face down into the water and look at both the beauty they are missing and the effect that them not even realizing we exist is having on us.
I love snorkeling, won’t come out of the water until I’m blue and shivering, yet the image that came to mind as I read her words wasn’t fish, but a concert by The Mahotella Queens I experienced in Philadelphia in the 1990s.
Why that show, that clear mental image of the women dancing and singing tirelessly as members of the audience who were African danced and sang along?
Because I grew up in a viciously, openly racist culture in an all white town (except my mom wasn’t white – long story for another time). Because I worked so hard to find all that ugly in myself and unlearn it — workshops, classes, conferences, hard conversations, reading reading reading reading books by women “of color” (such an odd term for a group that represents the overwhelming percentage of humanity).
Because I was learning to get it. Then I went to see the Mahotella Queens. Holy crap. They got together the year after I was born and I was exhausted just watching them perform. As a woman with a big butt I was CHANGED that night — the way they used the motion of their butts to highlight the rhythm of the dancing, the way their skirts were designed to focus all the shaking going on. Why had I never seen this before?
And at that moment I knew why, and some of the ugly boiled up, a voice in the slightly-southern accent of my hometown, saying horrible things around the concept jungle bunny. I heard that voice, and I watched these women, and I just started crying. All the beauty that had been kept from me, all the beauty and power the holders of that voice would never ever see because they refused to see. All that beauty I was starving for, that I vowed to do even more work to get to witness again and again.
And the thing is, as Nedra says below, most folks “of color” don’t even demand that I prove myself to have been utterly wiped clean of racist white privilege crap, only that I’ve learned to keep the worst of it at bay. Same as the fish didn’t demand that Nedra have a track record of, say, eating only sustainably harvested sea food — only that she stop stepping up them, shut up, and look down and praise the wonder.
The first time I went snorkeling I was kind of eh about the idea. I mean I’d been to the beach hundreds of times in my life. Like ok… now I am going in with a mask… big deal…
Now mind you, most of my beach experience was Santa Monica and Venice area of CA. That’s where I grew up for a good many years. This snorkeling adventure was in New Caledonia which is surrounded by the world’s largest lagoon. So you could walk out quite a ways and not be in all that deep.
There I was trudging best I could with the mask half on and the flippers making it hard to step. But I got to a certain point and my friend Adam was like… “ok now you’re going to turn around and just fall back cause it gets deeper right there.”
And yeah… completely different all of a sudden. Big splash. But OK all is fine. I’m treading water. So he is like…. “OK so just put on the mask and the look down and float.” And so I have in mind that when I do this I will be seeing… mostly sand and a few sea plants and then occasionally… “Ooh! I think I saw a fish!” — kinds like shooting stars…. like ok it happens… but it’s an elusive experience….
I looked down into the water I had already been treading in and it was like the NYC of fish. I freaked out and had to turn up for air like “WTH?!?! How could I be here treading water and ALL THIS was happening without me knowing.” Like I wasn’t bumping into fish or anything and seriously… there were enough in a million different shapes, sizes and colors RIGHT THERE. And I didn’t know it.
Adam kind of laughed at my surprise. I prepared myself again with this new understanding and went back to floating and just looking at how amazing everything I was seeing was…
A friend of mine has a phobia about fish. And she wanted to push past it. So she committed to herself that she would try snorkeling. But it was huge and scary and she had to talk about it with LOTS of people to work herself up to finally doing it. And then when she came back to tell us about it, she said,
“Oh I get it. On the other side of uncontrollable fear lies unspeakable beauty.”
– – – – – – – – – – – –
I am reminded of all that because I was having a conversation with someone who I imagined myself trying to explain racism to using a light switch. Like… you are in a room that is dark. And you think you understand everything that is in the room, because you are accustommed to it as you have always known it. But when a light is turned on, things you may never have imagined are also there. Then I remembered my own experience with the fish.
The thing is… once I got in the water the fish knew about me. They swam about avoiding me. I’m sure it was easy enough for them to navigate. But I’m sayin’… It wasn’t until I put my face down into the water and looked that I even realized any of that was RIGHT THERE the whole time. Before I saw that, in my mind, all that was there was Adam and I.
I navigate racists, and I mean likely very well meaning racists, all the time. I avoid overt displays best I can, and I buffer myself against the barrage of micro-aggressions.
It would be nice though if well meaning, yet racist, people started being willing to put their face down into the water and look at both the beauty they are missing and effect that them not even realizing we exist is having on us.
Not sure what I mean is clear. I realize it’s a little woo woo and a bummer probably too to end a sweet fish story with talk about racism. I just know that I am exhausted by the racism that would exist if none of us ever talked about. And that is only amplified by the racism we are trying to talk about and having denied.
And speaking of great music and fat bottoms, here’s a clip of Nedra Johnson’s Fat Bottom Girls singing “Anyway You Need Her” at MichFest:
I have a deadline to meet later this week, 500-700 words on “why poetry is transformative.” Here’s my start:
On Poetry and Transformation
Words don’t flow from meaning—meaning flows from words. Shift a syllable here or there, free a phoneme, dare to let the music choose its own lyrics, and what you know and what you feel veer out of the orderly lines and dart across the border beyond which There Be Dragons.
And honest poetry is the language of dragons translated into human tongues, or how human tongues speak Dragon.
Or maybe poetry is the place where I get to be a dragon.
Or poetry is what my Dragon-self and I create together, turning words into fire and flight.
As a poet, I try to turn experiences and emotions that exist outside of language into songs my people can sing. Like how I started this small essay a few inches above this line, determined to be smart and profound and deep, to craft carefully each syllable, until lines led to across led to border led to beyond which led (through a childhood soaked in fantasies of escape) to Dragons and now here I am, no longer a poet but a vast leather-winged beast with a voice that shatters stone walls and breath that burns walled cities to ash.
There is in every poet such as beast as mine—my Dragon-self, nostrils flaring, smells friend worth dying for or foe worth the fight. Most I think sport wings and armor or claws large as tree roots or eight sets of legs to dance an army off a cliff.
And for all of us poetry is our compromise between destroying the world and loving it. Or is the power of destruction transformed into love. Or love translated into the power to destroy.
A poem that is only what it seems to be is not poetry. Nothing is poetry until you catch a scent that makes you shiver, until what your brain reads and what your body knows diverge, until you catch out of the corner of your eye a shadow that strikes the nerve that knows you might yet be prey.
If at the end of a poem you are who you were when you started the poem you have not dared to dwell in poetry, nor dared to let poetry dwell in you.
such fragility in stone if
atoms began to unbond themselves my house
would be dust or even mystery for a future Ph.D.
dung heap missing walls, stone
having become gas
and if our planet’s protons, depressed by the state of
things, go all negative on us we might
find ourselves water or copper or
a change so small you can barely
understand it, knowledge dissolving into
chaos of no-longer-theoretical-physics
probability disintegrating into pray lib obit or baby lip riot or pitiably orb
anything, in short, could so easily be anything
else and yet you lie by me quivering
cells controlled by some unknown, alien, invader bent
on making your nerves set themselves ablaze, a burning
doctors cannot name so cannot help so I
am again up late looking for healers: psychics, palm readers,
proctors of past lives, providers of snake skins or bee balm,
re-birthers, re-energizers, the energizer bunny, particle physicists,
particle board, anything that might be
an answer or that at the very least will not stare past us proclaiming Some people learn to live like this
for in a universe of infinite realities this can’t go on being real:
you lying there, like that
me watching you, like this
Vladimir Khodasevich writing about Marina Tsvetaeva:
Poets are not born in a country. Poets are born in childhood.
What, then, is Russian about Marina Tsvetaeva?
Tsvetaeva understood audial and linguistic work that play such an enormous role in folk song. Folk song is for the most part a litany, joyful or grieving. There is an element of lamentation, an element of tongue-twister and pun, there are echoes of spell, incantation, even exorcism in a folk song—there is a pure play of sounds—it is always partly hysterical, near the fall into tears or laughter, and partly zaum (refers to the pure play of language, “beyonsense” ).
Translating, round two, after help from Ann Ellen Dichter and Eugene Sotirescu. This is complex stuff, translating. Which I knew, but I just keep knowing more and more. In theory, I’ll have an entire manuscript of at least 48 poems by next year. In theory…
at night the doe dreams of
nimrod the hunter hero
let him come already to stick an arrow
into my insides
let him stand with spread legs over
my still corpse
let him admire this flesh
Here’s my revised translation, based on his literal translation.
In the nights, the fawn dreams
of Nimrod, the mighty hunter
Let him come, press an arrow
into and into me
Let him stand, legs spread,
over my unmoving body
Let him lord over this flesh
a few notes about my translation:
I chose “fawn” rather than “doe” because in the Hebrew the word ayalah is both a girl’s name and the word for “doe.” I think the sense of human and animal intertwined is essential to the poem, so I chose “fawn,” which can be a woman’s name in English. It’s not common, and I’m not sure the double meanings carry anything close to the same strength of the Hebrew, but it’s a start.
I chose “press” rather than “stick” because the word in Hebrew can also mean the meteorological term “bar” as a measure of pressure. Press also, I think, carries an intimacy that I think is there in the poem.
I chose “into and into” rather than “to my insides” because of how Marcia Falk uses “b’kirbi” in her morning blessing and translates as “heart of hearts” or “innermost being.” I’m not sure “into and into” captures the sense of being in the deepest part of oneself, although the sense of the act being repeated night after night is important.
And I chose “lord over” rather than “admire” because the Hebrew root carries a sense of being a despot or tyrant and thus a strong sense of control. “Lord over” in English carries both the sense of being the lord of the manor and of the slang “to lord it over someone,” both of which meanings are relevant here.
Or at least that’s what I’m thinking today. When I hear from some of my other Hebrew speakers, words and emotional meanings could shift again radically.
Sue has been living through really awful pain and as one way of coping asked me to try to start writing about the pain, all of its varieties and intensities. Writing gives me something to do when I see her suffering and don’t have much else to do, so I’m trying to find words for experiences that are very much outside of spoken language.
Pain Poem #1
cells slamming into cells
honing every edge
to blades that cut each other
open and you must wait
20 minutes for the vicodin
to begin to block the pain but know
every cell in your body will be shredded
oozing cytosol in 2 minutes,
and you will have to feel
your body disintegrating for 1080 seconds,
and you begin to count:
one thousand one, one thousand two , one thousand three