In “An Ex-Judge at the Bar”, Melvin Tolson lays out a fictional character’s ruminations of what it took to gain power: the body of a lynched man and replication of hegemony through participation in an “old boys club”, and though written decades ago, the poem still has resonance. In the days after the suspicious death (what I call murder) of Sandra Bland in a Waller County Jail while in police custody and in the wake of the proliferation of images around police brutality against Black and Brown people, I am thinking more about what it means to be Black in time and why it is that I am choosing to write about Black immortals who survive on blood (spirit) and water(humanity).
To get there, I want to tell a story that connects me more closely to the story of Sandra Bland. In 2006, I had just finished my course work for UNC-Chapel Hill. I had gotten a number of residencies, the first of which was at the Montana Artists Refuge in Basin, Montana. It was a town of 300 people. In that town, I saw only one person that I could identify as a person of color for a month. It was so lonely that I would daily go to Lisa’s, the local pizzeria, for a slice of pizza and a little company. After a productive residency, I headed back to Philadelphia. My older brother, Clifton, was getting married, and I had three days to drive from Montana to Philadelphia. I was speeding in South Dakota, and that’s where I was stopped: Deadwood, South Dakota on an early morning with only truckers and that one trooper on the road. The state trooper asked for my license and registration, which I quickly gave. When he asked me how fast I was going, I told the truth (it was 15miles over the speed limit, around 85). He asked me to step from the vehicle. I did this, too. He asked me to follow him to his vehicle and sit in the front seat while he ran my plates. I did. Above my head, I remember seeing a rifle lodged. The police cruiser was filled with equipment. He ran my plates. I told him how I was a doctoral candidate and poet, had just completed my studies, was going to my brother’s wedding, had just completed a residency. I smiled and made light, said how I had never been in a cop car, wondered at how much equipment was in the vehicle, played sweet. After he wrote my ticket, he walked me to the car and advised me to stay the limit. I asked questions about paying the ticket. I sat for a minute, gathering myself together, shaking the cheer off and revealing the deep anxiety beneath: woman of color, traveling alone, with so many miles yet to go, on an isolated road with only truckers passing by quickly on their way (many of them faster than me and none stopped). When I pulled off, I signaled, made sure the highway was empty and safe. I went the speed limit for most of the way back. That whole situation could have gone awfully wrong, and there are so many things wrong with how it played out, but I got home alive.
To survive sometimes as a woman of color who have to defer, play dumb, laugh a lot, show the right about of cower balanced with worthiness of being called human. A lifetime is a lot to bear of this. What of thousands of years? How does that chip away at the soul? What does it do, too, in twisting one to the normalcy of cruelty? Robert Hayden adds to this in “The Whipping” where a woman is beating her son again: “And the woman leans muttering against / a tree, exhausted purged – / avenged in part for lifelong hidings / she has had to bear.” What are the traumas that we who have been affected by racism will perpetuate in our living? Can one no pass that on consciously? Hayden in “Those Winter Sundays” writes: “Speaking indifferently to him / who had driven out the cold / and polished my good shoes as well. / What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Iset and Persephone must have those moments of dailyness when love is carried by action, if not sound.
This is where I think the project is living. I think vampires are those who have found a way to survive but have lost the reason behind surviving; they’ve lost their gentleness and pieces of themselves in existing. I don’t see them as vibrant, sensually enthralled creatures as some might write. I see them as generally numb to influence and change with sudden and surprising breaks in that. Martin Carter in “University of Hunger” offers: “O long is the march of men, and long is the life / and wide is the span / O cold is the cruel wind blowing. / O cold is the hoe in the ground … The beating drum returns and dies away. / The bearded men fall down and go to sleep.” There is so much that would be resonant to someone who has watched passed so quickly and slowly. In the end, the cycles of life must seem the same view with different background scenery (different rivers and terrain). How easily it be to go numb with what might begin to feel monotonous to some.
Tolson writes in “A Song for Myself”, which, in title, is a nod to Whitman though the focus is far more internal and, in form, is a nod to Emily Dickenson, though far more formal in its rhymed structure: “I judge / My soul / Eagle / Nor mole: / A man / Is what / He saves / From rot.” This is such a high bar for the poet: saving something from rot. What is that which must be saved? Stories, memories, experiences, formal shifts, language? In just those few lines, he shifts what previously read writers (like de Andrade) did in writing about the detritus and the destruction of the urban space to focus on what can be saved within any space, including the internal. Interesting premise.
But why write about immortal blackness, how it turns to cruelty from humanity, how humanity can be lost along with water and the earth? Because, as Hayden wrote in “Frederick Douglass”, “When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful / and terrible thing, needful to man as air, / usable as earth … this man / shall be remembered … / with the lives grown out of his life, the lives / fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” In this fictionalized world, there is a throbbing of emotional resonance that could consume in flame heat, but there is also a desire for balance. I am writing to make sense of this world, which has lost so much and so much so rapidly. I need to write to understand my place within it. I, like Perse, am struggling to find balance. This can be amplified by Gwendolyn Brooks when she writes in “the sonnet-ballad”: “Oh mother, mother, where is happiness? / They took my lover’s tallness off to war, / Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess / What I can use an empty heart-cup for.”
Another story: So at CantoMundo a little over a week ago, I read at the first fellows reading. All the fellows read up to 3 minutes of a poem. I read two from the new manuscript. One of the other poets took a picture of me reading. My eyes are down; I’m focused on the page. In the background, there are three shadows. They could be my shadows; that’s what they are most likely, propelled by different beams of light. I’m liking the idea that they are the beings I was talking about: Iset, Elisha, and Persephone. That they are becoming substantiated through writing. I’m also hoping that, if that’s the case, that they allow me to write their happiness as I wrote their and our collective woes. Brooks writes, from “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”: “This is the urgency: Live! / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.” I am writing this work to make sense and, perhaps, come to my own resolutions and continued tension that leads to constructive resistance place. Looking forward to more writing over this next year on the project.