Category Archives: Poetry
What a loss to the poetry world: Chana Bloch, poet extraordinaire, passed this month, on May 20, 2017. Besides having a long and storied literary career, her humanitarian contributions as a voice for justice and peace will be long remembered. Her lasting contribution as a translator should also be noted, including the significant translation of the Song of Songs. Two of her poems below show us a glimpse of her heart and passion for life and the living:
God blessed you with curly hair,”
my mother used to say
and dressed me like Shirley Temple.
On my bare scalp, Australia:
a birthmark that hid
in the thicket of my hair.
Unblessed in a downburst, I lost
my leafy summer, my lovely,
my crest, my crown.
I sleep in a flannel nightcap.
My wig sleeps in a closet,
comb and brush in a drawer.
I wake to a still life—
a clock that marks the hour
before it strikes.
No skull on my desk.
Just a face in the mirror,
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending
precious pottery with gold.
What’s between us
seems flexible as the webbing
between forefinger and thumb.
Seems flexible but isn’t;
what’s between us
is made of clay
like any cup on the shelf.
It shatters easily. Repair
becomes the task.
We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history
and the cup is precious to us
we saved it.
In the art of kintsugi
a potter repairing a broken cup
would sprinkle the resin
with powdered gold.
Sometimes the joins
are so exquisite
they say the potter
may have broken the cup
just so he could mend it.
Read it here. What a thrill to have a guest blog post on Trish’s fantastic site! Meriam’s book is definitely a must-read.
On March 19, 2017, the young and very accomplished poet Okla Elliott passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. He was also a novelist, fiction writer, translator, translator, and teacher, in academia and beyond. I discovered his poetry from Subtropics, where I read the first poem below.
The Patience of the Land Mine
Weeds grow over rusty death
in a field no crops
but many flowers
will populate. The land mine dreams
the sweetness of a child’s foot
or a dog’s paw to depress
its small detonator, dreams
the echoing boom
and the wet bloom of meat and bone.
It dreams its dream for years, decades,
does nothing but dream,
and never grows tired.
But I only experienced his considerateness firsthand when I published a review in the same issue of Tupelo Quarterly Review as he did, after which we became Facebook friends. It seemed as if I merely blinked, maybe twice, and he was gone. What a loss! This article gives an idea of how much he is missed and his legacy, as well as another of his fine poems.
Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who was born and died in the Caribbean island of Santa Lucia, left a larger-than-life legacy of poetry, plays, essays, and more, certainly a prolific and much-lauded literary giant. The Caribbean world imbued his poetry with gorgeous, rich imagery, and permeated his unique style. He will be long remembered. One of his best-known poems is “Sea Grapes”:
Related Poem Content Details
International Women’s Day this year, galvanized by the misogyny of President Trump, showed the world a powerful presentation of the importance of women and their essential contributions, calling for both recognition and justice in so many ways.
At the same time, just last month, the shortest month of the year, was Black History Month, for which I barely found enough time to do a few posts, despite that even a 31-day month would not be sufficient time to do bring up a tenth of the poets we need to hear about. One important poet being Allison Joseph.
Allison Joseph’s poetry addresses both concerns: that of racism and its insidious dehumanization of people of color, and civil rights, and that of women’s rights and the fight to be respected and given their due. Here are two strong poems demonstrating what a strong voice she is indeed on both issues.
By Allison Joseph
A sundown town was a town, city or neighborhood that was purposely all-white. The term came from signs that were allegedly posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as “sunset towns” or “gray towns.” The highest proportion of confirmed sundown towns were in the state of Illinois — Wikipedia
Don’t show your face in a sundown town,
or forget your race in a sundown town.
What ancient shame flushes my cheeks?
Reminded of my place in a sundown town.
“How’d you get so good-looking?” said with a wink.
Old white man loves my grace in a sundown town.
Lost in a neighborhood where dogs snap chains,
my body’s a dark space in a sundown town.
Shotguns, gun racks, Dixie stickers, rusted trucks.
Should I stray, armed with mace, in a sundown town?
Crimes thrive in black, white, every grade between.
Are you just another case in a sundown town?
Kink of your hair, curl of your lip,
be careful who you embrace in a sundown town.
State police, city cops, small-town hired hands.
All give chase in a sundown town.
Burned houses, riddled with junk and meth.
Hatred creeps its petty pace in a sundown town.
Black father, white mother, coffee-colored daughter.
What can love erase in a sundown town?
Rivers, tires, bodies—a confluence that cannot hide.
Hard not to leave a trace in a sundown town.
And here, first published on the PBS website:
By Allison Joseph
I remember this as her kitchen,
the one room in our house where no one
questioned my mother’s authority—
her cast iron pots bubbling over
on the stove, cracked tea cups
in the sink. How I hated
the difficult oven always hanging
off its hinges, so loose a clothes hanger
rigged it shut, gas range whose flames
leapt beneath fingers when I turned
its knobs too quickly, floor tile
that never came clean no matter
how much dirt I swept from its
cracks. This was her domain—
kitchen for frying fish
and stewing chicken, for rice
and peas, plantains and yams,
for grease and hot sauce and seasoned salt.
Only she could make that faulty
oven door stay, only she could master
the fickle flames of the rangetop,
only she could make those worn dishes
and chipped plates fill a table
with food so rich and hot
my father could not complain.
And though I am her daughter, this house
no longer hers, her body deep in holy ground,
I know she’d want me to save all this—
decades of platters and saucers, plates,
glasses—every chipped cup, tarnished fork.
Sometimes it seems like I’m overusing the words “power” and “powerful” in reference to poetry and poets; perhaps even more so with African-American/ African poetry. Etheridge Knight’s name doesn’t come up too much these days, but it should. His poetry resonates, especially now with a president who doesn’t respect the first amendment, who wants to establish Fox News and Breitbart news as State TV, in whose wake heinous hate crimes are experiencing a revival against people of color, gays, Jews, Muslims, people of Indian descent, anyone who looks Foreign, Non-WASP, non-straight, Other. Knight’s work is a powerful voice for all people who have experienced oppression; his work is daringly universal and forthright, and deserves a place among the top tier poets.
His poetry is also characterized by its depth of understanding, as evidenced here:
A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison
By Etheridge Knight
After explanations and regulations, he
Walked warily in.
Black hair covered his chin, subscribing to
“This can not be real,” he thought, “this is a
This is a cake baked with embarrassing icing;
Likely as not, a big fat tongue in cheek!
What have I to do
With a prim and proper-blooded lady?”
Christ in deed has risen
When a Junkie in prison visits with a Wasp woman.
“Hold your stupid face, man,
Learn a little grace, man; drop a notch the sacred shield.
She might have good reason,
Like: ‘I was in prison and ye visited me not,’ or—some such.
So sweep clear
Anachronistic fear, fight the fog,
And use no hot words.”
After the seating
And the greeting, they fished for a denominator,
Common or uncommon;
And could only summon up the fact that both were human.
“Be at ease, man!
Try to please, man!—the lady is as lost as you:
‘You got children, Ma’am?’” he said aloud.
The thrust broke the dam, and their lines wiggled in the water.
She offered no pills
To cure his many ills, no compact sermons, but small
And funny talk:
“My baby began to walk… simply cannot keep his room clean…”
Her chatter sparked no resurrection and truly
No shackles were shaken
But after she had taken her leave, he walked softly,
And for hours used no hot words.
Monica Hand’s powerful and unique voice will be an enduring one through her poetry. In her own words: “My best poems express ideas concerned with civil rights and the human condition and do that in a way that the energy of the poem is felt in the gut, the heart, the throat and the head.” Sadly, she passed on December 15, 2016, unexpectedly and much too soon. She had published her first poetry collection in 2012, nina and Me. She was already an award-winning poet, despite having begun her writing career relatively late, and had almost immediately been recognized as an important voice, having discovered, through study and travel, much information about the African Diaspora, those displaced from their homes by the slave trade. Her poems deal with and recognize that, honoring those who had been treated with such dishonor, and raising the painfully real awareness of that history and its need for honest dissemination.
By Monica Hand
This body – its muscles and its bones
its sagging milk glands no use as fare,
slightly curved back and arthritic knees
no good for carrying. Lost vessel.
Here resides asylum & dangerous
thoughts, capillaries of grief & greed
equally measured. A load like skin,
just like the mammoth’s, I cannot keep
myself cool. This body walks inside
bodies of wounding diction, a fit
inarticulate in its meaning.
To disappear, these unstable bones
rustle across continents, crippled,
a senile beast stuffed into a box.
And here is an ekphrastic poem, one that finds in this iconic painting a greater truth that goes to the heart of justice, a place where art, beauty, and transcendence itself can be applied to the human condition. To, as the poet herself put it, “heal traumas of the heart and the spirit” and to “resist injustices.” Now we are becoming painfully aware of how much we need her voice, still living in her words.
By Monica Hand
I watch the light change its many colors.
Here, from my little boat on a little pond,
sky, clouds, algae, weeping willow without
edges, no horizon just changing light.
The mutable landscape floats round leaves.
To hold light in a frame is for the bourgeoisie.
Who would try to possess the water’s surface?
Who would flatten prisms of changing light?
Today I’m green. Tomorrow I may be white.
It’s all the same. Light is more than one color.
Black is an invention of man. Colors change,
close up and from the bottom of the pond.
Day-by-day, night-by-night, I see
my visions shift in the light, ever-changing
The lynching — by which we mean racially-motivated torture and murder — of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a heinous crime which, by being brought out into the open and made public for all to see and know, is considered the spark (or one of the sparks) that lit up the civil rights movement in America.
It is the subject of renowned poet Patricia Smith’s powerful piece, “Black, Poured Directly into the Wound.” The title alone speaks volumes, and this is an important event to remember during Black Histoy Month, all the more important considering that we now have a white supremacist sharing power, apparently, in the White House. We need voices like Smith’s, to point out, with an unforgettably sharp point, the ugly history and legacy of such a mindset.
Black, Poured Directly into the Wound
By Patricia Smith
Prairie winds blaze through her tumbled belly, and Emmett’s
red yesterdays refuse to rename her any kind of mother.
A pudge-cheeked otherwise, sugar whistler, her boy is
(through the fierce clenching mouth of her memory) a
grays-and-shadows child. Listen. Once she was pretty.
Windy hues goldened her skin. She was pert, brown-faced,
in every wide way the opposite of the raw, screeching thing
chaos has crafted. Now, threaded awkwardly, she tires of the
sorries, the Lawd have mercies. Grief’s damnable tint
is everywhere, darkening days she is no longer aware of.
She is gospel revolving, repeatedly emptied of light, pulled
and caressed, cooed upon by strangers, offered pork and taffy.
Boys in the street stare at her, then avert their eyes, as if she
killed them all, shipped every one into the grips of Delta. She sits,
her chair carefully balanced on hell’s edge, and pays for sanity in
kisses upon the conjured forehead of her son. Beginning with A,
she recites (angry, away, awful) the alphabet of a world gone red.
Coffee scorches her throat as church ladies drift about her room,
black garb sweating their hips, filling cups with tap water, drinking,
drinking in glimpses of her steep undoing. The absence of a black
roomful of boy is measured, again, again. In the clutches of coffee,
red-eyed, Mamie knows their well-meaning murmur. One says She
a mama, still. Once you have a chile, you always a mama. Kisses
in multitudes rain from their dusty Baptist mouths, drowning her.
Sit still, she thinks, til they remember how your boy was killed.
She remembers. Gush and implosion, crushed, slippery, not a boy.
Taffeta and hymnals all these women know, not a son lost and
pulled from the wretched and rumbling Tallahatchie. Mamie, she
of the hollowed womb, is nobody’s mama anymore. She is
tinted echo, barren. Everything about her makes the sound sorry.
The white man’s hands on her child, dangled eye, twanging chaos,
things that she leans on, the only doors that open to let her in.
Faced with days and days of no him, she lets Chicago — windy,
pretty in the ways of the North — console her with its boorish grays.
A hug, more mourners and platters of fat meat. Will she make it through?
Is this how the face slap of sorrow changes the shape of a
mother? All the boys she sees now are laughing, drenched in red.
Emmett, in dreams, sings I am gold. He tells how dry it is, the prairie.
It’s not always that I find so many poems that fit a particular urgent need all at once, but this poem that came to my inbox and pierced right through the heart was the perfect answer to the catastrophe of Trumperica and all its ugly works and ways. For Black History Month, I’ve run coincidentally into a few other poems that are right on the money both on the politics and the toxic shock that comes out of having a fanatic run rampant, lying and clueless, over the Republic, democracy, and what’s left of human rights or compassion. Those poems I will publish within a few days. But for now, this packs a real punch. Plus, Gwendolyn Brooks, a hero in every sense of the word, needs to be recalled at times like this. So indeed, a fitting title.
What Would Gwendolyn Brooks Do?
Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.
I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge.
I ready myself once again
for morning and mortify.
Stacking poetry and bills in a knapsack;
I bundle up hope (it’s brutal out there).
For a moment, I stand with ghosts
and the framed ancestors surrounding me.
I call out, hoping she can hear me
over the day-breaking sirens—
hoping she’s not far away,
or right down the street,
praying over another dead black boy.
How will we make it through this, Ms. Brooks?
When she held a body,
she saw much worse than this.
I know she was earshot and fingertip close to oppression.
She saw how hateful hate could be.
She raised babies, taught Stone Rangers,
grew a natural and wrote around critics.
She won a Pulitzer in the dark.
She justified our kitchenette dreams,
and held on.
She held on to all of us.
Hold On, she whispers.
Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—
a rebel rouser and rude.
They want me to like it, or at least pretend,
so the pretty veils that blanket who we really are—
this complicated history, can stay pretty and veiled
like some desert belly dancer
who must be seen but not heard.
We are a world of lesions.
Human has become hindrance.
We must be stamped and have papers,
and still, it’s not enough.
Ignorance has become powerful.
The dice that rolls our futures is platinum
but hollow inside.
Did you see that, Ms. Brooks?
Do you see what we’ve become?
They are skinning our histories,
deporting our roots,
detonating our very right to tell the truth.
We are one step closer to annihilation.
Hold On, she says, two million light years away.
Hold On everybody.
Hold On because the poets are still alive—and writing.
Hold On to the last of the disappearing bees
and that Great Barrier Reef.
Hold On to the one sitting next to you,
not masked behind some keyboard.
The one right next to you.
The ones who live and love right next to you.
Hold On to them.
And when we bury another grandmother,
or another black boy;
when we stand in front of a pipeline,
pour another glass of dirty drinking water
and put it on the dining room table,
next to the kreplach, bratwurst, tamales, collards, and dumplings
that our foremothers and fathers—immigrants,
brought with them so we all knew that we came from somewhere;
somewhere that mattered.
When we kneel on the rubbled mosques,
sit in massacred prayer circles,
Holding On is what gets us through.
We must remember who we are.
We are worth fighting for.
We’ve seen beauty.
We’ve birthed babies who’ve only known a black President.
We’ve tasted empathy and paid it forward.
We’ve Go-Funded from wrong to right.
We’ve marched and made love.
We haven’t forgotten—even if they have—Karma is keeping watch.
Hold On everybody.
Even if all you have left
is that middle finger around your God-given right
to be free, to be heard, to be loved,
and remembered…Hold On,
Copyright © 2017 by Parneshia Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.