After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire. (6)
The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam
Whose eyes bring the rain from far countries, the salt rain
That hazes horizons and races,
Who, crouched by our beach fires, his face cracked by deserts,
Remembering monarchs ask us for water
Fetched in the fragment of an earthen cruse,
and extinguishes Troy in a hissing of ashes,
In a rising of cloud.
Clouds, vigorous exhalations of wet earth,
In men and in beasts the nostrils exalting in rain scent,
Uncoiling like mist, the wound of the jungle,
We praise those whose back on hillsides buckles on the wind
To sow the grain of Guinea in the mouths of the dead,
Who, hurling their bone-needled nets over the cave mouth,
Harvest ancestral voices from its surf.
Who, lacking knowledge of metals, primarily of gold,
Still gather the coinage of cowries, simple numismatists,
Who kneel in the open sarcophagi of cocoa
To hallow the excrement of our martyrdom and fear,
Whose sweat, touching earth, multiplies in crystals of sugar
Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop
And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew. (15-16)
A few more poems from June Jordan, easing the end of a rough week where so much had to be done, almost all of it cold-derailed. I love her poetry, love how Jordan always holds in precarious shining balance joy and suffering, life itself as we are bound within it. Part of nature, never apart, and nothing is wholly innocent.
Queen Anne’s Lace
(From Things I Do in the Dark – 1977)
Unseemly as a marvelous an astral renegade
now luminous and startling (rakish)
at the top of its thin/ordinary stem
the flower overpowers and outstares me
as I walk by thinking weeds and poison ivy, bush and fern or runaway grass: You (where are you, really?) never leave me
to my boredom: numb as I might like to be.
you do revive
a suffering. (211)
Her words take my breath away sometimes.
Sunflower Sonnet Number Two
Supposing we could just go on as two
voracious in the days apart as well as when
we side by side (the many ways we do
that) well! I would consider then
perfection possible, or else worthwhile
to think about. Which is to say
I guess the costs of long term tend to pile
up, block and complicate, erase away
the accidental, temporary, near
thing/pulsebeat promises one makes
because the chance, the easy new, is there
in front of you. But still, perfection takes
some sacrifice of falling stars for rare.
And there are stars, but none of you, to spare.
Always they fill me with release, reading in these perfect words the wordless furies I know, resistance I feel.
From Sea to Shining Sea
From Living Room – 1985
This was not a good time to be married
The Pope has issued directives concerning
lust that make for difficult interaction
between otherwise interested parties
This was not a good time to be married.
This was not a good time to buy a house
at 18% interest.
This was not a good time to rent housing
on a completely decontrolled
This was not a good time to be a Jew
when the national Klan agenda targets
Jews as well as Blacks among its
enemies of the purity of the people
This was not a good time to be a tree
This was not a good time to be a river
This was not a good time to be found with a gun
This was not a good time to be found without one
This was not a good time to be gay
This was not a good time to be Black
This was not a good time to be a pomegranate
or an orange
This was not a good time to be against
the natural order
—Wait a minute—
Sucked by the tongue and the lips
while the teeth release the succulence
of all voluptuous disintegration
I am turning under the trees
I am trailing blood into the rivers
I am walking loud along the streets
I am digging my nails and my heels into the land
I am opening my mouth
I am just about to touch the pomegranates
piled up precarious
This is a good time
This is the best time
This is the only time to come together Fractious Kicking Spilling Burly Whirling Raucous Messy
Exploding like the seeds of a natural disorder. (330-331)
What better way to respond to such a week, such a world, than this. Together with a dream of growing a much much thicker skin.
This huge hardback book The Gorgeous Nothings is rather breathtaking — despite the fact that really it consists of scribbles from Emily Dickinson. I had earlier flipped through it a bit confused — my mum had got it from the library so I had no fore-warning of just what it contained.
This is what a flip-through will show you, envelop poems on the one side, a careful and spatially exact transcription on the other:
Poems written on envelopes carefully undone and opened out, poems that spill out to fit the space allotted, even when it is tiny.
Scraps of paper covered with words.
They are profoundly moving.
This was one of my favourites, and is also subject to a lovely essay at the end by Marta Werner:
wheels of birds, afternoon and the west the gorgeous nothings
If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled. Although its brevity and immediacy place it outside the reach of conventional classifications, it bears a striking affinity to the genre David Porter names “small, rickety infinitudes.”
Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light. (199)
The pinpricks are from where Dickinson pinned her scraps of paper together. I think of her now overflowing with scraps of paper.
A view of the book with Pluto the guinea pig who poses with books (and there are reviews sometimes), one of my new favourite tumblr blogs.
There is little that can describe the cumulative effect of these scraps of paper, these scratches of writing that you become better at puzzling through, though too often relying on the typed transcriptions. They range from pointed, sarcastic responses to daily life to collections of words that seem to mean little to deeply moving fragments so evocative of beauty.
Not until reading this did I realise just how much the rhythm of Dickinson’s poems had been shifted, regularised upon the page by her editors. These fragments show space and irregular rhythms, the process of playing with words.
Time for more poems I think, poems of courage and beauty, poems about the fight for a better world. More from June Jordan.
— excerpts from Some Changes (1971)
a note beneath the title tells us this was written for a law passed to allow some light and air into the Lower East Side Slums…landlords complied by blasting false windows into brick.
4. Unskilled millions crammed old mansions
broke apart large rooms and took a corner
held a place a spot a bed a chair a box
a looking glass
and kept that space (except for death)
a safety now for fugitives
from infamy and famine
working hard to live.
5. In place of land that street the outhouse
to a horrifying speculation that would quarter
debase and shadow and efface
the pivacies of human being.
6. Real estate rose as profit spread
to mutilate the multitudes and kill them
living just to live
What can a man survive?
They say: The poor persist. (61)
10. The Tenement Act of 1869
was merciful, well-meant, and fine
in its enforcement
tore 47,000 windows out of hellhole
shelter of no light.
It must be hard to make a window. (62)
Poem about the Sweetwaters of the City
— from Poems of Return
the subway comes up
a quick one
two stops rattle rusted short
where the letters tell me
PLEASE KEEP HANDS OFF DOORS
(Or near there)
you assume the buildings and
the smallprint roadways and
the cornered accidents
of roof and oozing tar and ordinary concrete
It is not beautiful.
It never was.
These are the shaven
the city show
of what somebody means
when he don’t even bother
just to say
“I don’t give a goddamn”
“I hate you” (133)
This next one about the ways our lives are constrained by our intersecting identities…I have felt this, I have felt all of this.
Excerpt from Poem About My Rights
(From Passion – 1980)
Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
who in the hell set things up
like this (309)
Maybe this next one doesn’t quite fit here, not being a city, but displacement…oh, displacement feels the same, just as struggle does.
from Lebanon Lebanon
(Kissing God Goodbye – 1997)
behold the refugees
aroused by soap
behold a people
lost inside a landscape
that belongs to them
behold a landscape
taken by the fiend
of force (515)
And this one? This last one for hope and all the things we do because we must, the struggle that makes us who we are…
Excerpt from War and Memory
(Naming our Destiny – 1989)
I fell in love
I fell in love with Black Men White
women White women
dared myself to say The Palestinians
worried about unilateral words like Lesbian or Nationalist
tried to speak Spanish when I traveled to Managua
dreamed about The Fourteenth Amendment
defied the hatred of the hateful everywhere
as best I could
I took long nightly walks to emulate the Chinese Revolutionaries
always wore one sweater less than absolutely necessary to keep warm
and I wrote everything I knew how to write against apartheid
thought I was a warrior growing up
buried my father with all of the ceremony all of the music I could piece together
lust for justice
make that quest arthritic/pigeon-toed/however
invent the mother of the courage I require not to quit (470)
A good kind of synergy came from reading June Jordan and Jimmy Santiago Baca so close together — especially in these two poems describing the leaders of different struggles over justice and land. One in Chicago, one in Albuquerque. I love how this form captures so perfectly the different feel, the different place. At the same time they feel almost like two sides of my own life, L.A. tenant unions and my LA/ Tucson neighborhoods and every childhood Thanksgiving up in Albuquerque with my grandparents…
For Beautiful Mary Brown, Chicago Rent Strike Leader
— From Some Changes (June Jordan, 1971)
All of them are six
who wait inside that other room
where no man walks but many
talk about the many wars
Your baby holds your laboring arms
that bloat from pulling
up and down the stairs to tell
to call the neighbors: We can fight.
She listens to you and she sees
you crying on your knees or else
the dust drifts from your tongue and almost
she can feel her father standing tall.
Came to Chicago like flies to fish.
Found no heroes on the corner.
Butter the bread and cover the couch.
Save on money.
tell me how you wash hope hurt and lose
don’t tell me how you
sit still at the windowsill:
you will be god to bless you
Mary Brown. (p 48-49)
From Meditations on the South Valley
(Baca – 1985)
El Pablo was a bad dude.
Presidente of the River Rats
(700 strong), from ’67 to ’73.
Hands so fast
he could catch two flies buzzing
in air, and still light his cigarette.
From a flat foot standing position
he jumped to kick the top of a door jamb
twice with each foot.
Pants and shirt ceased and cuffed,
sharp pointy shoes polished to black glass,
El Pachucón was cool to the bone, brutha.
His initials were etched
on Junior High School desks,
Castañeda’s Meat Market walls,
downtown railway bridge,
on the red bricks of Civic Auditorium,
Uptown & Downtown,
El Pachucón left his mark.
Back to the wall, legs crossed, hands pocketed,
combing his greased-back ducktail
when a jaine walked by. Cool to the huesos.
Now he’s a janitor at Pajarito
Elementary School — still hangs out by the cafeteria, cool to the bone, el vato still wears his sunglasses, still proud,
he leads a new gang of neighborhood parents
to the Los Padilla Community Center
to fight against polluted ground water,
against Developers who want to urbanize
his rural running grounds
Standing in the back of the crowd
last Friday, I saw Pablo stand up
and yell at the Civic Leaders from City Hall
“Listen cuates, you pick your weapons We’ll fight you on any ground you pick.” (72)
More poetry from Jimmy Santiago Baca, poetry of place and home. Poetry of labour. What it means to build or rebuild a house that will hold you, that will hold meaning. From Martín:
I gutted the plaster frame house,
nailed, puttied, roofed, plumbed,
poured cement, sheet-rocked, tiled, carpeted,
tore-out, re-set, piled, burned, cleaned, cemented, installed,
washed and painted,
trimmed, pruned, shoveled, raked, sawed, hammered, measured, stuccoed,
until, calloused handed, muscle-firmed, sleek hard bodied, our small house rose from a charred, faded gravemarker, a weather-rotted roost for junkies and vagrants,
wind, rain, and sun splintered
jagged stories of storms on,
I corrected, re-wrote upon this plaster wood tablet, our own version of love, family and power. (47)
But It burns down, this home. They need someplace to stay. Temporary places that don’t fit. These dislocations I share, so rarely found in books.
From Meditations on the South Valley
Cruising back from 7-11
In my 56’ Chevy truckita,
beat up and rankled
clanking between rows
Of shiny new cars–
“Hey fella! Trees need pruning and the grass needs trimming!”
A man yelled down to me
from his 3rd-story balcony.
“Sorry, I’m not the gardener,” I yelled up to him.
Funny how in the Valley
an old truck symbolizes prestige
and in the Heights, poverty.
Worth is determined in the Valley
by age and durability,
and in the Heights, by newness
In the Valley,
the atmosphere is soft and worn,
things are passed down.
In the heights,
the air is blistered with glaze
of new cars and new homes.
How many days of my life
I have spent fixing up
rusty broken things,
charging up old batteries,
charging pieces of old batteries,
wiring pieces of odds and ends together!
Ah, those lovely bricks
and sticks I found in the fields
and took home with me
to make flower boxes!
the old cars I’ve worked on
endlessly giving them tune-ups,
changing tires, tracing
cursing when I’ve been stranded
between Laguna pueblo and Burque.
It’s the process of making-do,
of the life I’ve lived between
breakdowns and break-ups, that has made life
I could not bear a life
with everything perfect. (59-60)
Read a book sometimes, and someone captures just what you been missing in these places you been living.
in the Valley at my house y parcelita de tierra, I added, raised, knocked down, until over months and years, the place in which I lived had my own character. I could look at it and see myself.
reflects a faceless person, with no future, no past, just an emptiness. (61)
I remember the house my dad built, I want to build a poem too — and I am happy these words have been breathed into the world. A different kind of home.
After that, the interior of the house
emanating blue dawn light,
full of gusto in the fresh-timber smelling house,
proud of the 3 bedrooms, hallway, livingroom & kitchen,
my finest poem I thought,
that sheltered me from the rain and wind,
as we worked our way
into doors, staining kickboards, putting doorknobs in,
(fine-tuning the poem),
measuring cabinets, leveling the floors,
shimmying here & there,
spitting & stomping, throwing our tools down in disgust
and huffs of temper,
yelling into the cold mornings
at each other, trying to go on and finish
in six weeks. (97-98)
After the Turquoise Trail, after Los Cerrillos and Madrid, we headed south to Quarai, south through Moriarty (!) and McIntosh, Estancia to Mountainair.
We were driving through the countryside poet Jimmy Santiago Baca writes about so compellingly. I read Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, look how time and evil rewrites the nature of towns — driving now we would only know Estancia as home to yet another prison, networked into the US carceral nation. This is how Baca knows it from Martín:
The religious voice of blind Estela Gomez
blackened the air one day.
“92 years mijito. ¿Que pasó? There were no more
beans to pick, no crops to load on trains.
Pinos Wells dried up, como mis manos.
Everyone moved away to work. I went to Estancia,
con mi hijo Reynaldo.
Gabachos de Tejas, we worked for them. Loading
alfalfa, picking cotton for fifty cents a row. (11)
Here too, are the ruins of Quarai. Before looking for the hotel we stopped at the ruins, hoping for a sunset peak. It was all closed off, sadly, but the town’s church was beautiful:
the countryside golden:
We came back in the morning, the church is mostly what is visible:
There was once a great pueblo here too, up to three stories. It sat along the trails by which salt was once traded, another place of encounter (Three such church and pueblo complexes form the Salinas Pueblo Missions Natinal Monument — Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira, which we weren’t able to see).
Here is it’s reconstruction from about 1300 — fascinating that it seems to have been left to the ancestors for many years just around this time, and reoccupied just before the arrival of the Spanish:
Like Cicúye / Pecos, this was a place of coexistence for a very long time after the Spanish Entrada. This is a reconstruction of the church.
It is huge, making us feel small.
Called El Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Cuarac, it was completed around 1629, and for a while served as a seat of the Inquisition. That gives me chills, though the park service information boards focus on the inquisitions struggles with the army more than its actions surrounding native beliefs and religions.
Like Cicúye, there are kivas here too amidst the Christian buildings. Like this one, square. That sits in my heart somehow. Change, contrariness built into stone and ceremony.
The pueblo ruins remain at peace beneath great mounds, covered with melons.
Jimmy Baca writes of how this place continues to live.
Dawn in the Manzano mountains.
Pine and piñón from chimneys
smoke the curving road
with resinous mist.
My black feathered heart
in the clear blue sky
above the pueblos
de Manzano, Tajique, Willard and Estancia.
At the foothills
my grandmother herded sheep
and my grandfather planted corn y chile.
I turn my motorycle off
next to QUARAI RUINS
and silence drops
into the canyon
sounding like an ancient song of sadness,
like a distant boulder
echoing into the blue sky and stubble grass
I step into the open rock pit
hollowed in the earth
with flat rock door facing east,
pinch red clay and chew
my teeth black with earth prayer, then speak with QUARAI–
O QUARAI! Shape
the grit and sediment I am,
mineral de Nuevo Mejico. (38-39)
I am not sure how much work had been done here when Baca arrived, it it was closer to what we could see, or this view of the church in 1935.
We traveled down Highway 60.
Abó is very similar, but people still live just to one side, and more recent ruins of settlement make this place feel a bit less like a ‘monument’. This is nice. They believe that while Quarai was of the Southern Tewa or Tiguex people, this was the place of the Tompiro. My favourite picture:
It is more lush here:
Another massive church here:
Again a kiva.
The pueblo hidden beneath mounds of earth. Bordered by flowers.
From here we drove on, drove on home
A final poem from Baca’s Meditations on the South Valley:
Send me news Rafa
of the pack dogs sleeping
in wrecked cars in empty yards,
or los veteranos
dreaming in their whiskey bottles
of the past, full of glory and fear.
The black smell of wet earth
seeps into old leaning adobes,
and prowls like a black panther through open windows.
hoeing their jardines
de chile y maíz in the morning,
crush beer cans and stuff them in gunny sacks
and pedal on rusty bicycles
in the afternoon to the recycling scale.
and at Coco’s chante
at dusk tecatos se juntan,
la cocina jammed like the stock exchange lobby,
as los vatos raise their fingers
indicating cuánto quiren.
There is much more I miss Rafa,
so send me news. (57)
We ate lunch in Truth or Consequences. Were too tired to stop in Hatch. We hit rain and a huge dust storm just outside of Deming. Pulled to one side. They are terrifying if you live here, have grown up with the news of 10 (20 to 30 to 100)-car pile-ups along these freeways. Fatalities. People drive like where they got to go and the time they got to get there are more important than life.
Syria has been breaking my heart open, Palestine, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the present springing from a bloodied history of colonialism, intervention and horror. Today we are left with dead children. Numbed children. Cities flattened. Homes lost. Loves lost. Everything lost. People fleeing, suffering without succor. The racist idiocy in all of this of French police forcing women to strip themselves of veils and burkinis (fierce blogs out today here and here). I don’t write much about current happenings, other people are doing that much better than I could. The horror of a world at war, whole populations uprooted and struggling with violent death and loss, sits inside me though. Along with helplessness. Marching, signing petitions, emails, contributions…not enough. Recognizing that all of our struggles connect? Not enough either, but we must not forget it and we must wrestle with what that means. June Jordan did this with an integrity and a reach that humbles me. There is a wonderful blog here from Therese Saliba on June Jordan and her solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in essays and verse.
There is this poem from Living Room, 1985, a book dedicated to the children of Atlanta and Lebanon.
Snow knuckles melted to pearls
of black water
Face like a landslide of stars
in the dark.
Icicles plunging to waken the grave
Tree berries purple and bitten
Curves of horizon squeeze
on the sky
Telephone wires glide
down the moon
Outlines of space later
pieces of land
with names like Beirut
where the game is to tear
up the whole Hemisphere
into pieces of children
and patches of sand
Asleep on a pillow the two
of us whisper we know
about apples and hot bread
Hunting for safety
and eager for peace
We follow the leaders who chew up
with names like Beirut
where the game is to tear
up the whole Hemisphere
into pieces of children
and patches of sand
I’m standing in place
I’m holding your hand
and pieces of children
on patches of sand (362-363)
Living room, room to live. This is from ‘Moving Towards Home’
I was born a Black woman
I am become a Palestinian
against the relentless laughter of evil
there is less and less living room
and where are my loved ones?
A few excerpts from ‘Who See Me’, an early poem of June Jordan’s, written for a book of portraits in 1969. Heartbreaking in its capture of confronting hate in the eyes others when you momentarily cease to be invisible — or only partially invisible. Confronting the violence of this seeing/not-seeing, this hate that comes from nothing you’ve said or done.
A white stare splits the air
by blindness on the subway
in department stores
The Elevator (that unswerving ride
where man the brother
by his side)
A white stare splits obliterates
the nerve-wrung wrist from work
the breaking ankle or
the turning glory
of a spine
Is that how we looks to you
a partial nothing clearly real?
the jail is white where I am born
but black will bail me out
We have lived as careful
as a church and prayer
that white terrain
impossible for black America to thrive
that hostile soil to mazelike toil
backbreaking people into pain
we grew by work by waiting
to be seen
black face black body and black mind
homicide of daily insult daily death
the pistol slur the throbbing redneck war
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.