A Poem on the Middle East “Peace Process”

A Poem on the Middle East
“Peace Process”
Etheridge Knight ~1972


Israel à la Begin, begins, “We
             /  love  /peace-and-uh
Yakady-yakady-yak-yak-yak.
That’s why we  /   drove  /
             the Palestinians off   /  their   /  land—
With the help of america and england’s evil hand.
And-ah-yakady-yakady-yak-yak-yak.”

In the Gaza strip an Arab boy sleeps,
              his knees /  are /  drawn  /  up to his chest.
His hands cup his crotch. He dreams of grenades,
And machine guns and prayers to Allah.

An Israeli boy sleeps in Tel Aviv. He dreams
Of the tales told to him by his  /  grand   /  father:
Nazi boots goosestepping on cobblestone, of lampshades
Made  /  from Jewish skin, of Jewish women—and men—
Naked and torn. He dreams too of blooming gardens
In the “promised land” and of killing Arabs
At his rabbi’s command.

And the “Peacemakers?” Ah, the peacemakers
Give guns to  /  one
And bombs to the  /  other
All contrary to the   /  cries  /  of the Mother.

Poem a day #14 Getting Dressed for Work

here’s a little lesson in what first drafts can look like. This not-yet-a-poem wanders all around, taking forever to tell a story which will probably be reduced to a few descriptive details when I’m done blithering and ready to really write. Inside every narrative is a lyric waiting to happen, but sometimes digging it out is not so easy. If I can’t remember the name of the woman I went out with, why is she even here in a poem about something else? And be forewarned that this piece doesn’t end but only gives up, out of time and out of words.

Getting Dressed for Work
1.2

Buttoning my Arrow shirt,
centering my thick leather belt
over the fly of my chinos,
sliding on my Doc Martens,
my mind bounced back
to Orange County, California
in 1986, on my first date
with a woman,
whose name I can’t recall,
in my first lesbian bar
whose name I don’t remember,

where I can still clearly see
the butch women—
the old school butches,
the men’s pants butches,
the starched collar butches,
the gentle hands that could
take you out butches,
the hold the door hold your chair
hold your hand but never let you
win at pool butches—
the butches, who all wore
tiny gold earrings.
Girly earrings, not Harlem studs
studs.

I stared at the butches,
discretely, for I’d read all about them
in my coming-out frenzy,
and also at their earrings,
mentioned in none
of my reading. My date,
as flighty as those earrings were
incongruous,
seemed not to notice.

Monday in coming out group
I asked my mentor Laurie,
who smiled at my description
with only half her face.

The dress code, she said. Don’t you know
about the dress code? When the bars
were raided, any woman wearing
less than three items
of women’s clothing
could be arrested
as a pervert.

Standing in Philadelphia
in 2010, I examine myself.
Men’s shirt.
Men’s style-pants.
Men’s shoes.
Men’s undershirt.
Men’s belt.
No jewelry.
Bra.
Today, women’s underwear.
Black socks – do cotton socks have gender?
Wallet.
Carefully chosen gender-neutral
burnt orange urban messenger bag.

I’d be in the paddy wagon,
my picture spread on the paper,
my job lost probably
my apartment lost
maybe and even if I ran
out the back I could still
have been beaten openly
on any street.

How do you get dressed—
oh that most ordinary
of daily experiences—
trapped between the radical need
to be only who you are
and constant fear
of arrest? How did you find
masculine-looking shirts
that still button on the left?
Shoes just female enough
to keep you out of jail?

How did you invent a world
in a world not ready for you,
oh Butches with gold earrings?
I know you fondled the silky panties
of the femmes with teased up hair,
but did you, secretly, fondle
your own, those bits of nylon tricot,
swathes of practical cotton?

Or was it the women police officers
fondling your panties
when you were stripped in search
of women’s clothes?

Poem a Day #4 – Southern Illinois Summer 1970

Lest you think I exaggerate, I grew up never eating rice. I don’t remember when I first learned what it was, but I didn’t grow up knowing. I think my Grandma Dorothy would sometimes eat minute rice with a lot of sugar and cream as desert, but I never tried it. Potatoes, almost daily. Egg noodles, macaroni, spaghetti, and lasagna, constantly. But never rice. And I didn’t see a bagel until high school when my bike-racing friends introduced me to them as a source of carbs you could stick in the back pocket of your jersey.

Southern Illinois, Summer 1970

Maxwell House coffee tins
rusted, scraped along the road side
until filled with small stones
and bits of black top tar
carried carefully by the hands
of seven year old girl
and her six year old cousin
only a few steps
to the ditch’s trickling stream
of water washed from a pasture
and field.

Each load of stone dumped on the last
pushed into a rough dam
cemented with one small handful of mud
after another, handful of stone, handful of mud
rising up and then across as the water
pushed past our determined construction.

At the top of the ditch we built one pebble dam,
below another and then another
and then another, then back to the top
again after each rain that rainy summer.
We built day after day, cans carried
across the street to Grandma Dorothy’s back porch
when called in for supper.

After, we watched our parents
watching the news on the tv. Somewhere
far away there was something bad
and the tv and the parents talked and talked
in voices we knew would not answer the questions
we knew from the voices not to ask.

Each next day we returned to our ditch
to build dams. We did not vary, we did not
play other games. The water had to be stopped,
the problem had to be fixed, the world
depended on the success of this project,
as it so often depends
on what children know they should not know.

We talked as we built, as children will,
dead serious and then laughing.

We called our dams rice paddies.

We didn’t know that rice was food.
We had heard that a paddy was something wet,
but were kept from knowing
what death lay in those waters.

We did know this—
every night the grownups said
something has to be done
so every day we built dams,
our fingers sometimes torn by asphalt pellets,
sometimes cut by broken glass buried in the mud,
all that summer, when rice paddies
demanded blood sacrifice
and children in two countries
had so little childhood.

Mud, Apples, Milk

Even though I didn’t grow up milking cows myself, I grew up with people who did, and I knew their connections to the cows, and I knew some of their cows. This poem makes me homesick for a childhood I almost, but didn’t quite, have.

Mud, Apples, Milk
Michael Walsh

Of all things to miss, it’s silly
to miss how cows drowse in mud.
They blink slow as toads.
Instead I should miss
light on the blond corn
or trails of gravel dust
that rose like kites and vanished.

But I don’t miss that.
I miss how I could bring
bruised apples, press them
like smelling salts
to sleepy noses.
You had to let go
real fast or risk a finger
to the lick and snap.

I miss their udders too,
the mud fresh as wax
on the swollen skin.
Each day I broke the seals
with hot rags, and milk
flooded my palm—
a white creek down
the gully of my wrist.

from The Dirt Riddles. © University of Arkansas Press, 2010.

working drafts – Flashback

Sections marked in [ ] are waiting for the right words or phrases to fall into place. That happens – either you stop writing to look for the right word and lose the next four ideas, or you leave it bare and come back later. Still writing, of course, which is why it breaks off on the second line of the fourth section.

Flashback
for Sue and for so long

1.

She straddled my chest, heavy, pressing, dripping water—
earliest memory, this dream still vivid, her
long hair hanging over my face
I was so scared, each time she arrived. I do
not remember so much, so much lost, nearly
all lost, but I can feel the mattress under me, be clutched again by the

dread, feel my toddler legs kicking the bunk bed above me
in which slept my big brother, hear his sudden shift as he
awoke, climbed down to me, chased her away again and again. He
never went to get our parents.

2.

Surprised that the seven year old boy, kicked awake
every night by his three year old sister, had already
learned that protecting her was his job alone?
I remember, clear as smog, how rarely he said
no when I wanted his jacket, his hat, my chunky
arms lost in the shape of his, and how he

did all he could, little one guarding littler one, and how once
in the hospital, he climbed two chairs and a shelf,
agile as our pet squirrel, to reclaim my bear Brownie the
nurses had taken from me as I was allergic.

3.

She straddled my chest so many nights,
enough to be indelible memory. She
looked like my cousin Rhonda, so
I tried to remember her as a child’s
inaccurate memory, or maybe a
[ ] of Morticia Adams or [ ], those long
afternoons in the heyday of Dark Shadows.

During a body work session once, in my guided
intention to focus on the root of my
asthma, I understood her as a metaphor,
nothing more than how a child’s mind gave

4.

shape to what it could not comprehend. An
elegant explanation.

Yusef Komunyakaa “Back Then”

I’ve eaten handfuls of fire
back to the bright sea
of my first breath
riding the hipbone of memory
& saw a wheel of birds
a bridge into the morning
but that was when gold
didn’t burn out a man’s eyes
before auction blocks
groaned in courtyards
& nearly got the best of me
that was when the spine
of every ebony tree wasn’t
a pale woman’s easy chair
black earth-mother of us all
crack in the bones & somber
eyes embedded like beetles
in stoic heartwood
seldom have I needed
to shake a hornet’s nest
from the breastplate
fire over the ground
pain tears me to pieces
at the pottery wheel
of each dawn
an antelope leaps
in the heartbeat
of the talking drum

Welcome to Writing the Unthinkable

from Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Why haven’t you gone out and bought this book already? Jeesh. Do I have to say it again??

There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight.

And when these two come together you get a fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it.

I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood.

They can’t transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.

It seems that human beings everywhere understand that a child who is never allowed to play will eventually go mad. But how do we know this? And why do we know this? And what happens when we forget?

“I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.” I read and re-read Black Beauty as a child, sobbing like the world would end, the description of the torture of the horses almost more than I could bear. But I needed it. It made something real, it told me other people knew about pain.

And I know so many non-Jewish incest victims who, as young teens, were completely fascinated with the Holocaust, all those horrible, awful, brutal details piled up. Some even became obsessed, and developed this weird thing about Jews being the victims we have to all protect (huh, wondering now how much of Christian Zionism this explains???). The ones on the far side of this, the survivors, say plainly that reading the awful stories was a kind of comfort—they made real and physical the level of emotional torment these women faced living in unthinkable circumstances.

Well, not so unthinkable, since the adult perpetrators clearly thought this stuff up and then acted it out in the world. Sometimes I want to know what was so intolerable in their own lives that the scenarios and images they created to make it okay to stay in the world involved hurting children so badly. Guess that is a circular inquiry, though, the question that answers itself forward and backward in time.

If you’ve ever been told you were “too sensitive,” what do you think the motive was behind that particular speech?

Lynda Barry on Images and Thoughts

from What It Is, her graphic/illustrated guide to writing. And living. And memoir. And art theory. This is an amazing book. Go buy it.

An image feels different than a thought. It feels somehow alive. If you say your first phone number out loud, you can feel something that is different than saying your phone number now. Thinking your first phone number and writing your first phone number and speaking it out loud are different experiences, but the image is the same. Can you picture where your first telephone was? (p. 34)

What do drawing, singing, dancing, music making, handwriting, playing, story writing, acting, remembering and even dreaming all have in common? They come about when a certain person in a certain place in a certain time arranges certain uncertainties into certain form. (p. 81)

Time + Place are always together. Why? Is imagination a time and a place? Where is your body, where is your mind, when you think? Does it go places? What is movement? Do thoughts move? When people are trying to remember something they often tap their fingers or touch their foreheads. Why does this kind of motion help us remember? Do images have motion? (pp 82-83)

An image is a place. Not a picture of a place, but a place in and of itself. You can move it it. It seems not invented but there for you to find. (p. 88)

What is a story before it becomes words? (p.44)

Enhancing, Fudging, Protecting, Lying?

One of the big issues in writing autobiographical poetry is that, as a poet, I can rarely write only about myself. To write about and from my reality, I am inevitably writing about other people. And sometimes what I am saying about them is harsh, strong, and revealing.

So, as a writer and as a human, what is my responsibility to these other people? To be completely honest, to hide their identity, to give them fake names and false details in a kind of Poetry Protection program?

To me, the context matters a lot. I have no desire to hide the identity or protect the feelings of my sadistic great-uncle who did horrible things to children, women, animals, and other living things. Violence, I believe, must be confronted, and speaking the truth about it is vital. And the pressure to say silent, to not reveal, to lie, was part of the violence done to me and others. But what about a poem about, say, an ex-lover, someone who was an ass and a jerk, but hardly evil. To name her, to share details of her life, in the name of “getting even” is, to me, clearly immoral, petty, and well, honestly, behaving like a jerk and an ass. But I do get to write about my experience of that unfortunate affair, or to write about love and life in general driven by emotions stirred by that experience.

So where, then, is the line drawn between truth-telling and causing harm, between protecting identity and caving in to silencing?

Poet Ted Kooser, in the essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems,” tells the story of a woman with a step-child who wrote a first-person poem about how that’s child’s biological mother had cut his face horribly in a drunken rage. Except it wasn’t true — the child had an accident, but his mother had never harmed him, nor was she a drunk. Kooser asks, “How could somebody write something like that, I wondered, just to ‘make a better poem?’ The child’s natural mother was libeled, and who knows what damage might be done to the child to have this distorted version of history on record?”

He explores this question in many interesting ways. What I found most illuminating was his discussion of the manipulation of writing in first person in order to make ourselves look better. He writes:

I am most concerned about poems in which ‘autobiographical’ information is presented in such a way as to effect the reader’s feelings about the poet. In such poems, the speaker, calling himself or herself ‘I’ (and without forewarning the reader in any way), builds a poem around what appears to be autobiographical information, but that is untrue. [he describes a childless man writing about a tender experience with his son, and a woman writing about the suicide of a brother that doesn’t exist] Hundreds of readers may be moved by these fabrications, moved to pity the poet, moved to praise his or her courage and candor.

Ouch! And wow, yes, exactly. The “I” poem must be about something other than the “I,” or risk descending into the most shallow kind of self-aggrandizement, written only to show off how brave or wise or generous the “I” is. Jeesh, I think I’ve written that kind of poem, or at least its step-sibling, the “look how wrong he/she done me/poor me” poem.

But of course Koontz knows there are all kinds of reasons poets change details: because the poem has to work as a poem, not just a transcript; because we want to protect others; because we are writing emotional, not physical reality. He offers this advice for walking the line between “facts only” and using the power of our imaginations to create the power of the written word. “I credit my friend, the poet Bob King, with coming up with a pretty good test as to where the line should be drawn: does the poet get some extraliterary credit or sympathy from the lie? If the answer is no, the invented detail, the lie, is not bad.”

Koontz closes his essay with this: “It is despicable to exploit the trust a reader has in the truth of lyric poetry in order to gather undeserved sympathy to one’s self. Why do we permit this kind of behavior in poetry when we would shrink from it in any other social situation?”

Me, I love a poet who is willing to use the word “despicable” while discussing what it means to have ethics and morals as writers. And, although he doesn’t discuss the other end of this, the oversharing of what did happen, that can be done in a way that is equally self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and despicable.

So if you ever seriously hurt me, know that I’ll feel well within my rights to take you on, poetically.” But if you merely piss me off, I do have ethics about how much to say. Probably. But also probably best not to push how carefully I, or any of us, walk that particular boundary…

A poem has two subjects

from Richard Hugo, Triggering Town

a poem has two subjects: a triggering subject that gets it going and a generated subject that the poem discovers along the way. The first subject is finally just a way of accessing the poem’s true subject. The first subject is the map, the second the treasure.

Billy Collins adds: “In a poem of recollection, the trouble often is that the memory itself can exert so strong a grip on the poet that the poem never leaves the confines of the past, never achieves the kind of escape velocity that would propel it to another, more capacious dimension. [These are] poems that are primarily driven by the engines of memory rather than the engines of imagination.”

(when I first read this, I thought he had written “capricious dimension,” an idea I find much more intriguing that “capacious.”)

from After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography