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.
Category Archives: women poets
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.
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.
Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire, whose star I hope will keep rising, expresses in powerful words the complex and gut-wrenching situation of refugees, especially from wars and outrageous oppression. She is a rare voice with such impact. In this time of atrocity, as the world watches Aleppo being annihilated by the brutal Assad regime, we need her voice in all its raw force. This is poetry for sheer survival.
By Warsan Shire
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home2
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
My review of And the Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania De Rozario, published by Math Paper Press, is up on Singapore Poetry, the premier poetry website in Singapore. Its founder and editor, Jee Leong Koh, is a fine poet in his own right, and has initiated an exchange of reviews and books between Singapore and the United States (where he now lives in New York). It’s a fascinating idea and a quick look at the site will tell you the high quality of literature coming out of Singapore.
De Rozario’s book is a fictionalized memoir, written in a style that reveals her skill as a poet and quite memorable. I learned much from her about the consequences of Singapore’s social experiment, and also about the struggles of the LGBT community there, one that illuminates the struggle for freedom and love for all humans. Please check it out!
Check out my review of Carina Yun’s award-winning chapbook On Loving a Saudi Girl on The Rumpus.net site (a fantastic site for book and poetry lovers) today!!
In her poem “Foley,” Lucia Perillo shows us a world, the same one we live in, where things are never as they seem. Now more than ever her words ring true.
By Lucia Perillo
It is Harrison Ford who just saved the world,
but when he walks down a dirt road toward the ultralarge sun
what sounds like his boots are really bricks being drudged
through a boxful of coffee beans. And the mare you’ve seen
clopping along those 19th-century pebbles –
she’s a coconut struck by a ball-peen hammer.
And the three girls riding in the hansom,
where the jouncing rustles their silk-and-bone:
that’s a toothbrush moving across birchbark.
Even the moment when one kickboxer’s perfect body
makes contact with the other kickboxer’s perfect body
has nothing to do with kickboxing, or bodies,
but the concrete colliding with the abstract of perfection,
which molts into a leather belt spanking a side of beef.
This is the problem with movies:
go to enough of them and pretty soon the world
starts sounding wrongly synced against itself: e.g.
last night when I heard a noise below my bedroom window
that sounded like the yowl a cat would make
if its tongue were being yanked backwards out its ass.
Pain, I thought. Help, I thought,
so at 2 am I went outside with a flashlight
and found a she-cat corkscrewed to a tom,
both of them humped and quivering where the beam flattened
against the grass whose damp was already wicking
through my slippers. Aaah…love, I thought,
or some distantly-cousined feline analogue of love,
or the feline analogue of the way love came out of the radio
in certain sixties pop songs that had the singer keening
antonyms: how can something so right feel so wrong,
so good hurt so bad…you know what I’m talking about.
And don’t you think it’s peculiar:
in the first half of the sixties they made the black girl-groups
sing with white accents and in the second half of the sixties
they made the white girl-groups sing with black accents,
which proves that what you hear is always
some strange alchemy of what somebody thinks you’ll pay for
and what you expect. Love in particular
it seems to me we’ve never properly nailed down
so we’ll know it when we hear it coming, the way
screaming “Fire!” means something to the world.
I remember this guy who made noises against my neck
that sounded like when after much tugging on a jar lid
you stick a can opener under its lip – that little suck.
At first I thought this must be
one of love’s least common dialects, though later
when I found the blue spots all over I realised
it was malicious mischief, it was vandalism, it was damage.
Everybody has a story about the chorus of these
love’s faulty hermeneutics: the muffler in retreat
mistaken for the motor coming, the declaration
of loathing construed as the minor reproach;
how “Babe can I borrow 55 bucks?”
gets dubbed over “Goodbye, chump” – of course,
of course, and you slap your head but it sounds funny,
not enough sizzle, not enough snap. If only
Berlitz had cracked the translations or we had conventions
like the international code of semaphores,
if only some equivalent of the Captain Nemo decoder ring
had been muscled across the border. As it has
for my friend who does phone sex
because it’s a job that lets her keep at her typewriter all day,
tapping out poems. Somehow she can work
both sides of her brain simultaneously, the poem
being what’s really going on and the sex being what sounds
like what’s going on; the only time she stops typing
is when she pinches her cheek away from her gums,
which is supposed to sound like oral sex
though she says it’s less that it really sounds like oral sex
than that these men have established a pact, a convention
that permits them to believe it sounds like oral sex.
When they know
it’s a woman pinching her cheek and not a blow job,
it’s a telephone call and not a blow job,
it’s a light beam whistling down a fibre, for god’s sake,
and not a blow job. Most days I’m amazed
we’re not all schizophrenics, hearing voices
that have been edited out of what calls to us
from across the fourth wall. I’ve heard
that in To Have and Have Not Lauren Bacall’s singing
comes from the throat of a man; also that Bart Simpson is really
a middle-aged woman; and last week not once but twice
I heard different women wailing
in public parking lots, the full-throttle
of unrestrained grief, and both times I looked straight at them
and pretended nothing unusual was going on,
as though what I was hearing were only the sound of air
shrieking through the spoiler on someone’s Camaro.
That’s also part of the pact my friend’s talking about,
not to offer condolence, not to take note.
You don’t tell the men they’re sorry creatures,
you don’t ask the women what went wrong.
If you’re being mugged or raped or even killed,
you have to scream “Fire!” instead of “Help!”
to get someone to help you. Though soon, if not already,
all the helpers will have caught on
and then you’ll have to start screaming something else,
like that you’ve spotted Bacall or Harrison Ford on the street,
Bart Simpson even – no wait a minute, he’s not real,
though I remember a time when even the President talked about him
as if he were human. It’s not the sleaziness
of phone sex I bristle at, but rather the way it assists
the world in becoming imprecise
about what is real and what is not, what is a blow job
and what is only my friend jimmying her finger
in her mouth or making a sucky noise
against the back of her hand. Which is oddly exactly
how the professor of the ornithology class I took my junior year
taught us to lure birds in, because birds
would think these were the sounds of other birds.
And in that other life of mine,
when bird-watching was part of what I did for a living,
I remember packing high into the mountains
before the snow melted, when the trail couldn’t be followed
so mine would be the only soul for miles.
One reason I went up there was because at sundown
when the wind climbed the backs of the mountains
along with the spreading violet light,
you could hear the distinct murmuring that the Indians said
were the collective voices of the dead. And I’d lie there,
just my sleeping bag and pad set down on snow,
and I’d look hard at the sky, as though
the wind were something I could see if I looked hard enough,
listening equally hard to convince myself
about the voices of the dead, though always
I was tugged back from true belief
by that one side of my brain that insisted: Wind.
And also I remember
how once at the trailhead a man popped out of his motor home
and pointed a camcorder at me, asking
where I was going, what I was doing – though of course,
alone, I wasn’t going to say.
But even as I turned away, I heard
the whirr of the movie being made
and the man making up his own narration: see this little girl,
she says she’s going to climb a mountain,
and briefly I thought about pulling a Trotsky on him
with my ice axe. But as the new-agers say I
“let it go”, and I left,
and he didn’t follow me, and nothing bad ever happened,
though from time to time I think about strangers watching that movie
in the man’s living room, his voice overdubbing
(see this little girl, she says she’s going to climb a mountain)
the sound of me, of my boots walking.
My review of Mary Meriam’s Lady of the Moon has been published in the latest issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, a sophisticated and well-respected place to be indeed. I’m thrilled to be in it; the issue is also full of fascinating articles. In fact, once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. Here is the link, bearing in mind the full article can only be viewed by subscribers. Please check it out!