What kind of form are the blues? When I say form, I do not only mean traditional verse forms like the sonnet. Everything that is intelligently conceived has form even if that structure is a nonce form (or a one-of-a-kind design). Moreover, even things that are ill-conceived have form (albeit, problematic arrangements). What I say here is different than some poets who only use the word form to signify a finite number of traditional, usually European-descended arrangements like the rhyme royal or the sestina.
The blues are and will always be a radical American art form because despite its deep penetration and proliferation within the art and culture of the United States and the world, it has always been marginalized. There is a certain violence to the way that the blues is cross-culturally perceived, a disenfranchisement that I understand intimately. The blues are an anti-normative form, a queer endeavor that challenges our attempts to institutionalize it all the time.
Thinking about the blues helped me to understand the world in forms. Understanding the world in forms means that I am always ascertaining the structures through which things are made. This understanding may be more radical for me than for others. When I was a child, I was habitually told that I was not normal. Growing up suspect meant that I became suspicious of normalcy itself. I began to associate the word normal with natural, unquestioned, deterministic states. What others understood to be normal, I understood to be just another made thing, or just another construction given hierarchical power, dominance, or control over me for a myriad of often mysterious reasons.
From these origins came a critical notion: even if I do not know the maker or have a name for the form, I know that it is made or being made. My first foray into truly critical thought (the kind that bespeaks true liberal arts of deeply free thinking) came when I understood that what seems normal is, in fact, just another construction.
Normalcy reassurances us as much as it controls us. We need reassurance at the same time that we need to question patterns of control. Understanding the world in forms means that I am always investigating the fault lines between what controls us and what we can control, or between how we make our worlds and how the world seems to make us. Things that others take for granted are subjected to enormous scrutiny.
Most people simply accept their assigned name, their assigned race, their assigned gender, and all sorts of other seemingly natural states. But even as a child, I never simply accepted these states. I critiqued them relentlessly. I wanted to understand the power within these constructions. Invariably, that power is confederated into forms, or into always shifting arrangements. I tried to describe, analyze, and interpret these forms. I created my own forms.
Let me explain why my perspective is radical even though it may seem that talking about form is the most traditional thing that any poet could do.
As a black child of extreme violence, I was, by definition, radicalized. Normalcy was a luxury that I did not enjoy. Even while I endured violence, foster facilities, and homelessness, I gained and sought privileges. My mother had me scholastically tested and when I scored high, she took me out of a predominately black, impoverished public school; fought to gain a scholarship for me; and, once obtained, enrolled me in a brutally uncaring, aloof, predominately white, wealthy private middle school in a nearby state outside of Washington, D.C. at enormous physical cost for me because I attended this school briefly while living in homeless shelters with my mother.
I would leave whatever homeless shelter at which we lived at 5:30 a.m. in the cold, dark of the morning and make an arduous, almost three hour journey: two city buses to a school bus stop on the edge of the city limits, and then forty-five minutes out of the city to a school where heads of state sent their children to study with body guards. When I arrived at the school I was filthy. I could never wash properly at the homeless shelters, and the walking between buses and the riding on sticky seats between other homeless people and workers leaving out in the wee hours to do manual labor made me even smellier. Invariably, I was often sick at that school whose name I will not mention. Malnourishment was a constant problem even while, maddeningly, I was attending a supposedly elite private school.
And yes, my physical state became a problem for a few of the school’s authorities, but the rest of that story is for another time. Suffice to say that this incredibly wealthy school did not compassionately come to my aid and create a program whereby my family received housing and fiscal aid while I attended the school. Apparently, they considered it enough that they offered me a scholarship. On the contrary, one teacher (who just happened to be one of the most favored, beloved educators at the school during my era) made it her personal campaign to remove me from her class (she could not stand the sight of me, the smell of me, and when I finally told her my family was homeless, she could not stand the very thought of me), and her campaign to get rid of me was waged on the grounds that, obviously, my home life and my very manner of being was not commensurate with study at such an august establishment.
And this teacher knew that she was wrong because, towards the end of my time at the school, she half-apologized and let me take two books as my own from her collection on the voluminous bookshelves of her well-appointed, spacious classroom, the same room from which she campaigned to banish me. In the end, she only let me take books for which there were multiple copies. Purely because I was interested in their titles, I chose two books that just happened to have been published around the same time in the 1940s, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph and The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry by Cleanth Brooks. That I was reading those books as a black middle schooler should tell you what kind of strange, radical child I was. I learned even then that some (though not all) seemingly progressive elite liberal arts schools fester with a hypocrisy within their souls whereby they do not always practice the lofty tenets that they claim to espouse as selling points when the time comes to value the most marginalized within their midst.
The combination of poverty, violence, yet intensive schooling (either by my own herculean, voracious efforts or intermittently within private institutions like that middle school or at the wonderful Levine School where I studied music theory, Solfeggi, and voice) created its own radical thoughtfulness within me. I was the kind of child who had read George Herbert Palmer’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey and Samuel Butler’s translation of the Iliad by the time I was six along with memorizing scores of poems and devouring my mother’s novels like Pearl S. Buck’s Imperial Woman. I would sneak and watch movie revivals from the back at the nearby Kennedy Street theater to the point where I already had a terrific knowledge of film by the time I was a middle schooler. I learned rudimentary music theory and both Benesh and Beauchamp-Feuillet movement notation during the same period and I was already performing professionally on the stage to make money for my mother as she fought to support her family.
But when I learned the blues, I truly began to understand the world in forms. The blues were my gateway to the highest form of intelligence as a critically aware black person in a vicious, unforgiving world so bereft of racial, economic, and gender justice.
It’s one thing to suggest the opposite of what you mean—classic verbal irony.
But, what if two different statements suggesting the opposite of their meaning follow each other in tandem.
Then, what if these statements were followed by others whose subtle meanings were deliberately scrambled.
And, further still, what if the entire scenario—the overall meaning itself—runs counter to what the statements suggest.
Well, this complex experience represents one of the most powerful formal characteristics of the blues.
I call this, “ironic juxtaposition” and it is one of three formal attributes that I discuss today.
The prototypical irony of the blues is that dejection is not only dejection, but something else: it could be rage, vindictiveness, or hope. The blues dramatize this root irony within their subtly clashing statements.
Let’s examine a 1951 song called “The Thrill Is Gone” by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell made famous by the iconic blues musician, B. B. King, as an example of ironic juxtaposition.
Photo by Roland Godefroy, 1989, public domain
King’s work has been fresh on my mind because he died this summer.
And don't get me started on Aretha Franklin's 1970 version!
Take in mind that many versions of the lyrics and score of this song exist because each blues person adapts it for her or his own purposes. But the essential ironic juxtapositions remain.
After the first repeating statements, you’d think that the “The Thrill Is Gone” is a simplistic lament that only shares sadness.
Yet, as the statements progress, we gradually learn that the song is a rebuke of a malevolent lover who wronged the singer and, even more than a rebuke, the song threatens the beloved, suggesting that rather than the singer only being dejected and lonely for losing the beloved, the beloved will instead be sorry for the loss.
These subtle ironies keep commingling and soon, by the time we get to the song’s final lines, which often convey something to the effect of “I’m free from your spell,” we realize that the lament is, in fact, an acknowledgement that the thrill is very much alive: the wonder comes in the singer being rid of the beloved and living to testify about it.
Thus, the song itself is an anthem masquerading as a lament—a terrific form of situational irony.
Midway through Franklin's version, the chorus is sung by backup singers who splice into the song the great civil rights anthem rooted in the spirituals, "Free, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last!"
Franklins' interpolation becomes the pinnacle of ironic juxtaposition for me among all the adaptations of this song.
Even in the late 1980s, I was telling folks in my life that the music and poetry of the blues and jazz constitute Modernism just as much as the poems of extremely well-documented virulently racist poets who we are often taught heralded Modernism like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. For an in depth exploration of T. S. Eliot's awful cultural bigotry, I highly suggest reading Anthony Julius' T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, and even though Allen Ginsberg "forgave" him, and many apologize for him, Pound's bigotry was appalling.
In middle school, high school, and college poetry classes, youth are often taught that these problematic individuals are the kings of Modern poetry. Yet, so much of the time, black blues and jazz traditions are excluded from the annals of Modern poetry and that has bothered me since I too was taught a version of "high Modernism" that consistently left out home-grown black American folk artistry.
One of the most fabled hallmarks of poetic Modernism is the complexity of allusion to prior elite literary texts within "great modern poems." These allusions are said to represent the highest forms of greatness and the public must unlock the key to these references with arduous study.
But high modern poems by white men like Eliot, Pound, and Hart Crane are not the only sophisticated artistry that weaves allusion. The blues frequently depend on complex allusions to black cultural life, and, without exaggeration, these allusions require just as much penetrating study as those within poems like "The Waste Land."
I called this hallmark "fractious allusion" because, in fact, one of the enormous impediments to understanding the intelligence of the blues is their contemptuous over-simplification, and this dismissal is bread in an undervaluing of the very lives referenced in the work. That's why I took the time to say that the blues are a kind of Black Lives Matter movement this week.
If you did not understand the allusion of "free, free at last" in Aretha Franklin's rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone" then your understanding of the formal ingenuity of the work is seriously compromised.
Yet, these allusions within the blues are fractious because they also raise issues of access, power, and privilege. Many of the allusions in the blues point tropes of low-to-no income black life, including lots of inside references to popular figures and social traditions spawned within rural and urban jookin' joints, speakeasies, and nightclubs. These references are often invisibilized by a mainstream public that may only encounter very limited, watered down or white-washed versions of these figures and traditions in the most commercialized popular songs and music videos.
Improvisation As Composition
This last hallmark is simply expressed: composing is improvising in the blues, and ongoing structuring and invention is endemic to blues form. (This contention—that improvisation is composition—is examined in relation to black vernacular dancing in this essay.)
Next up: I close with a discussion of a blues lyric by Bessie Smith.
Much has been said on the frenetic pace of modern life, and its consequences. Writers have been glorifying the wonders of simplicity for hundreds of years: “Let your affairs be as two or three, not a hundred,” Thoreau advised in Walden. But in the past five to ten years, especially, the art of “slowing down” has garnered a mass-market following. Today, it is “cooler” than it ever was (think Eat Pray Love, Lululemon, and the rising popularity of Buddhist quotes in tattoo parlors).
I found my way recently to meditation out of medical necessity; chronic stress and anxiety had been causing stomach pains and other physical symptoms. I did, of course, what all good writers do before embarking on something new—I procrastinated the actual “doing” of the thing by reading about it first. A lot. In Mindfulness, Meditation, and Mind Fitness, Joel and Michelle Levey ponder how, “In a single day we respond to more information and make more decisions than one of our ancestors faced in a lifetime.” I thought about this as I went through my day: sorting through dozens of emails advertising clothing, facials, and charities; walking a supermarket aisle devoted entirely to cereal; stopping at a popular intersection with four competing drugstores, one on each corner.
I spent a great deal of time preparing my meditation. I downloaded just the right app, found just the right space where I would not be disturbed (a carpeted closet), bought a tray for the occasion to hold a candle, beads and fancy Santa Maria Novella incense papers. It was only weeks later that I gathered enough courage to actually sit down in my closet, close my eyes, and try to think… of nothing. I wasn’t very successful.
I’ve learned since then that it takes at least seven hours of accumulated meditation time before one begins to see an actual difference. But I’ve thought a lot in the past month about what “meditation” means to different people. To some it means sitting in a dark closet; to others it means tai chi, or yoga, or reflexology, or reiki.
But couldn’t it also be poetry? Self-help books don’t really reference this tactic. But I think a lot of people would agree that reading poetry slows down our minds in the best kind of way. For exactly that reason, the faster society goes, the more people tend to say to poets when apologizing for not buying their books, “You know, I don’t really get poetry.”
But if we spend the same amount of time on a page of poetry with sixty words as a page of a novel with four hundred words, we get a whole lot more out of it. William Stafford is one of my favorite twentieth-century “meditative” poets (“There are great gray islands that come for us, / where the dreams are / far as the sky and the light…”) but I also recently discovered a beautiful, slim volume by Richard Wilbur, published in 1947, called The Beautiful Changes: “I’ve been / Down in Virginia at night, I remember an evening door / A table lamp lit; light stretched on the lawn …” The comma he places between “at night” and “I remember” makes two sentences glide into one, and he does this often, stylistically inviting a more meditative reading.
I think the key to a good relaxation practice is getting out of one’s own mind and away from one’s own obsessions, however that is achieved. I love the recordings of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles for this, and PBS’s American Ballet Theater documentary, with all its incredible slow-motion footage of dancers on pointe (it is not lost on me how overly-romanticized this seems, talking of nuns and ballet, but truly, they are very calming). Thoreau said, “If for a moment we make way with our petty selves…what a universe will appear, chrystallized and radiant around us.” I keep looking for it; hopefully—one day—I’ll see it.
Poetry is how we pray, now. In these skeptical times, poets are Caedmon and poems hymns. Past the personal, poets sing for those who cannot – registering our awe, making sense of our anguish, and harnessing the inchoate longing of countless souls. Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets - deepening our silences, so that we might overhear ourselves.
Poetry, also, can restore our sight, helping us to bear better witness to Now and, past that, calmly gaze over the head of our harried times. By lending us this third (metaphysical) eye which collapses distances, poetry can act as a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life. After all this, too, is what prayer can do: serving as our conscience, and reminding us in times of (personal or political) duress of our essential selves, or who we might become: ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Thus, poetry reconciles false distinctions between vita active and vita contemplativa – demonstrating how words are also actions. I pray by admiring a rose, Persian poet Omar Khayyam once said. In contemplating poetry’s rose – its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we’re made finer morally, able to conceive of a greater reality.
Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, seeing through the apparent to the infinite. Lately, I’m consumed with the idea of the artist as mystic, and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, in Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance (prayerful admiration of a rose) one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic, Al Ghazali, puts it thus: This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow."
One year before his death, Rilke is meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds, in these memorable words:
"It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."
Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body we access the life of the spirit. Remembering we are "bees of the invisible," sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a Here and There. Bodies are like poems that way, only a fraction of their power resides in the skin of things. The remainder belongs to the spirit that swims through them.
Here is another Persian and Sufi poet, Hafiz, reflecting on the centrality of beauty to our well-being:
“The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy it is synonymous with existence.”
Beauty, far from being a superficial concern is essential, and can be a turnstile that leads us from the visible to the invisible world. To return to Khayyam, yet again, by admiring the rose — its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we are made finer morally, spiritually even. This is how aesthetics can serve as an ethical code, and prayer is "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul" (Emerson’s definition).
Poets, philosophers and mystics, by their nature, seem especially well-suited to exposing the false divisions between the visible and invisible worlds. While a calling in the life of an artist might be divorced from the strictly religious sense of the word, it still requires similar renunciations, obedience and sacrifice. I can’t say I’ve studied the lives of mystics as closely as I have those of artists, yet the profound similarities seem difficult to dismiss. Time and again, I discover poets and thinkers I respect powerlessly submitting their private lives in the service of intensifying consciousness (out of what can only be described as an indestructible inner imperative). Thus, entire lives are anxiously arranged around the conditions most conducive to the maturity of this elusive faculty.
The artistic-philosophic landscape is teeming with seers of this type. The power and aura of these fiery spirits derives as much from the truths or realities they have revealed as what they’ve had to sacrifice along the way; it is an authority born of the tension between what is accomplished and what is suffered.
What such poets or thinkers have in common is a life-long struggle to build a bridge between the two worlds — an uncommon commitment to bear better witness and Be, more fully. To travel to and fro, between the visible and the invisible, required a kind of vanishing act of the traveler, what Foucault called “a voluntary obliteration that does not have to be represented in books because it takes place in the very existence of the writer.”
As this is my final post as guest author, I would like to cast my net and highlight some of the interesting books that have come across my desk in recent months:
Diane di Prima Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2007)
Forrest Gander, Eiko & Koma (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #8, 2013)
Ferreira Guilar, Dirty Poem (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #18, 2015), translated from the Portuguese by Leland Guyer
Mike DeCapite, Radiant Fog (Sparkle Street Books, 2013)
Thomas Devaney, Calamity Jane (Furniture Press Books, 2014)
Thomas Devaney, Runaway Goat Cart (Hanging Loose Press, 2015)
Elaine Equi, Sentences and Rain (Coffee House Press, 2015)
David Meltzer, No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow Press, 2000)
I have been getting more and more involved in the work of Diane di Prima of late. This summer I taught a course at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program entitled “Theogonies: What Poets Do When They Write Gods.” We examined the role of theogonies in poetry, particularly epic poetry, beginning with Hesiod, looked at Plato’s objections to Hesiod and Homer, and then jumped to the 20th century, where we studied how Charles Olson took epic and the idea of modern mythologies in a completely different direction. We took a careful look at di Prima’s work, in particular her Revolutionary Letters, which attains epic sweep in its role of speaking for the tribe, elucidating its beliefs, and stirring it to action. We also looked at her epic Loba, which embodies a shamanistic, feminist, animist, and animalist worldview.
While at AWP last spring, I picked up two pamphlets from the new New Directions series. At 85, Ferreira Guilar continues to be an important figure in contemporary Brazilian poetry. He started out an ally of Concrete Poets (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari, among others), who were based in São Paulo. Guilar, who was living in Rio, branched off on his own path of neo-concretism, embracing the Communist Party after the military coup of 1964 and pursuing poetry of a humanist bent, while reveling in informality of style and language. Many Brazilian artists had to flee the dictatorship, and Guilar wrote his remarkable poem while in exile in Buenos Aires in 1975. In it, he attempts to return to the city of his youth and to re-create all he experienced then:
we wake up early and stay
in bed musing through
the early-morning process:
the first steps in the street
sounds in the kitchen
until from rooster to rooster
(in the backyard)
and the tap of the laundry tub
opens to gush the morning
Forrest Gander’s contribution to the ND pamphlet series is a group of texts that work around the Japanese dance duo Eiko and Koma, who have been performing their spectacular, primal, work for over four decades now. Gander uses a constantly shifting poetic approach to come to terms with their timeless, yet highly physical, performances, in which they often perform completely naked in slow, writhing, movements that suddenly explode into new situations. In “Entanglement,” Gander writes:
This as love story. His hand,
his hand feeling for her.
Face, emphatically angular. Her in-bent
arms spread like a cormorant’s.
He wobbles toward her spasmodic,
through invisible web…
Mike DeCapite writes in prose, yet I think of him as a poet, as he is constantly working through moods and situations, rather than in narratives per se. He is, on the other hand, not like William Burroughs, intentionally exploding narrative through the disruption of cut-up technique. Rather, DeCapite takes the reader on unexpected rides through unfamiliar (at least to most readers I would wager) places. In the Preface to Radiant Fog, he explains how he earned a nickname from a boxing coach in San Francisco, who had known guys in Brooklyn with names like Frankie Bats and Joey Braciol’:
Once, he said, “You’re always outside, sitting on a bench, out walking around, looking at the puddles, looking at the leaves. I’m gonna give you the name Mikey Outside.”
I said, “What, because I go for a walk? That’s so bizarre to you it earns me a nickname?
“Mikey Outside,” he said.
And of course Outside has more than one meaning; perhaps the coach was something of a literary critic himself, as he divined the essential nature that makes DeCapite a poet.
As to the other poets on my list — Thomas Devaney, Elaine Equi, and David Meltzer — in their quite different ways, one could say they form a troika of the pinnacles of contemporary poetic practice. Devaney’s Calamity Jane came into being as a libretto for performance artist Jeanine Oleson, and the book contains a cogent foreword by Brenda Coultas. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book, apart from the Western ambience that strangely, because of its dislocation, reminds me of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger in places, is that the poems are in the voice of Jane, that is, Tom writing as Jane. As Coultas points out, Jane herself was gender-obscuring. And strangely, too, at times one begins to hear Tom through the voice of Jane:
Whatever I might look like, wherever
I might be — it wasn’t in my eyes,
it was the whole me — a burning nag
with a heart. All mettle.
Never not wild.
Write that down.
Elaine Equi is our poet laureate, no matter what anyone says. She will be. She speaks for everyone, out of a particular space and language that is hers alone. How she does that will likely remain a mystery. At this point, her lines shimmer with the ecstasy of being right, every time. Not that you would know that from asking her. Her self-deprecating humor would never allow her to take the mantle. Fortunately, for us, it is already a given. Her newest book notches up that mastery. Her sense of history, as well as the immediate moment, is unerring. In “Zukofsky Revision,” she writes:
If I wish to convey this accurately,
I must choose not the exact right word,
but rather the right inexact word
that allows for a similar amount
of vagueness and ambiguity.
David Meltzer is uniquely positioned to craft a meditation on jazz legend Lester Young. A musician himself, who grew up amid the jazz worlds of New York and Los Angeles, Meltzer is also a poet of the most refined subtlety. He is the ultimate outsider, who is simultaneously caretaker of a vast knowledge of alternative pathways, poetic, musical, spiritual. His book-length work, No Eyes: Lester Young, published in 2000, was based on a photograph taken during Young’s last year, when he was staying at the Arvin hotel and would look out the window to chart the activity of the clubs across the street:
clear moon slice
what a night for death
streetlight eye pain
beserk neons down Broadway
they stand in doorways coffins
deal & hustle it’s all good
& done & I’m still chorusing
naming not blaming
no retreat merely returning
I started playing piano before I learned which was my right hand and which the left. To remember my hands correctly, I would associate the right hand with the high notes of the keyboard and the left hand with the bass notes. Even now, the words “right” and “left” remain subconsciously orchestrated. When I hear “extreme right,” I can’t help but imagine all these politicians speaking with high-tweeting Chip-and-Dale voices while the leftists are the slow-slurring basses, regardless of their gender or physical constitution. As a result, I can’t take either side seriously.
Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Ralph Freed. "I love a fireside, when a storm is due / I like potato chips, moonlight, and motor trips, / How about you? // I'm mad about good books, / can't get my fill, / And Franklin Roosevelt's looks / give me a thrill. . ."
Susan Egan and Brian d'Arcy James
Something I have been wondering: would I give up my whiteness to be Black? The answer is yes, but Walter Scott would still be dead. Would I give up my whiteness to be Black? The answer is yes, but let’s not mistake it for sacrifice or pretend Walter Scott would not still be dead. I spend time in Black spaces, in Black family, amid Black love, I know Black genius and have known Black bodies and know just about nothing of what it is to be Black but I would be it, would surrender my whiteness to be it and Walter Scott would still be dead.
Something I have been wondering: what would happen if whiteness as we know it disappeared? What if whiteness carried on its broad pale back the unbearable weight of enslavement, of three-fifths, of Jim Crow and Tuskegee and the prison capitalist industry and the long and unqualified failure of Brown vs. the Board of Education? What then for my blue-eyed nephews, my pastel godson? Would Walter Scott still be dead? Would my father? My grandfathers? Theirs? In trees? Behind trucks? In fields? As experiments? On ships? In rebellion? Running away?
I can tell you I would not exist. My mother’s mother met my grandfather during the Great Depression; he was driving a boat and she was swimming off the family’s lake house pier. My mother met my father at a dance in the same lily-toned summer community. Remove skin privilege and the stories fall apart, my DNA a rope unraveling.
Make fate stronger than this, make them meet in bread lines or protest rallies and I exist, but who am I? Shift the locus of my birth, shift the solidity of my public schooling, shift the capacity of my parents to pay for college, shift the easy slip into employment, shift my safe white walk through everywhere – turn it all on its head, an inversion, and name me someone else. Because I am white, which is indivisible from privilege.
And what if tomorrow it all were different. If in an instant, skin became no indication of whom to kill or kidnap or fire or disdain or dismiss or enslave or arrest or detain or shrink from, clutching one’s expensive handbag on the subway. Would we find another marker for target, and construct a new national horror story on that? It would need to be visible, like skin. Be inherited, generationally unshakable. Who would be Walter Scott then, be Michael Brown, be Tamir Rice, be John Crawford, Mariam Carey, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Alberta Spruil? Who’d be dead?
So much conjecture, and Walter Scott is still dead for nothing. Dead for nothing but his pure skin. And my father is alive, and my nephews and my godson being raised into good men. And my grandfathers died of old age and cancer and I can’t surrender or abandon or strip off this whiteness any more than I can bring back the dead.
But I can ask this question: what does it require for a human to be seen as human in any skin?
How many Coast Guard photos, how many sweet-faced senior pictures, how many Black boys leaning into their father’s good shoulders, how many hands up, how many face down, how many can’t breathe, how much footage of cops handcuffing newly dead humans do we need? These are bodies, living or once living. These are human, human, human bodies.
Billie Holiday on repeat, you know the song, the poplar tree, white bark, white branches, indivisible from its history, white like bones white like teeth and flags of surrender tied to branches and bayonets Walter Scott, I surrender. I am sorry. Michael Brown, I surrender. I am sorry. Ferguson, I surrender. I am sorry. Dear living dear living dear living, I can’t take the white from my body but here is my white mouth, here are my white hands. I will not surrender to history. I will speak. I will try to put them where there is need.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.