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Today’s the last of the guest postings on Poem Elf.  I’m not going to throw shade on all the other posters by suggesting I’ve saved the best for last—each entry has been a wonder to me—but I am mighty pleased to end this collaboration with a poem perfectly suited to these pandemic days and posted in the same spirit of delight that I still feel, ten years on, every time I poem-elf.

 

Brooklyn editor and screenwriter Molly Virostek posted not one but four (clearly she loves this poem and you will too) copies of Mary Ruefle’s “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend.” I don’t often cry reading a poem but this poem brought up a lot of buried emotion and yikes here I go again.

 

Before I hand the space over to Molly, let me thank all the assistant elves. You introduced me to poems I’d never read and locations I’ve never visited. Whether you offered an extensive commentary or just a line or two, your matching of poems with places was insightful, fun, and (to me) deeply moving. I’ve loved sharing this enterprise with you. If I know you, I love you, and if I don’t know you, I’m sure I would.

 

*

 

Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend

by Mary Ruefle

 

Remove everything beautiful from your home, remove everything you like, love, cherish, or are fond of. Remember to include pets and people. Remove everything which reminds you of these things in any way. Remove everything which brings you happiness or a feeling of peace. Remove everything which reminds you of your life.

 

Leave everything which you feel is ugly, disgusting, broken or painful. Leave everything that makes you uncomfortable when you look at it or use it. If necessary, add to these things by bringing more of them from the outside in. Make sure your home is as full as it once was and be certain everything is crummy and repulsive. Live in this space, among these things you cannot bear, for sixty days.

 

Empty the space completely. Leave nothing in it. Clean it thoroughly and wash the windows. Sleep on the floor, or on a clean thin mattress the exact dimensions of your own body. Live in this space for sixty days, during which your primary activity, when you are home, is to stare at the ceiling.

 

Bring the beautiful things back in, bring your beloved belongings, your most cherished possessions, back into the space and place them in their original positions. Make sure everything is as it was before. Live as you once did; if this is not possible, live twice.

 

 

The poem I chose is “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend” by Mary Ruefle. I came across this poem about a year ago. Pre-quarantine, I just liked the poem and vaguely understood what it was saying about resilience and renewal and rebirth. Over the next year, I ended up sending it to dozens of friends going through different life transitions—breakups, job changes, moving cities, losing family members, just generally feeling lost. It always said what I didn’t have the words for—and that was before the pandemic. It’s all the more resonant now. I’m not sure what phase I’m in currently, but it’s nice to know where we are all headed:  living again, or even better, living twice.

 

I posted a few copies of the poem around Williamsburg, Brooklyn—on my neighborhood subway stop (for the incredible healthcare workers who are bravely heading to work each day and keeping NYC going) and in the park (for all the rest of us who are working through all the phases the poem describes, even though sometimes it feels they are playing out of order). It was fun to watch people watch me post it, wait for me to get far enough away, and then swarm to read. I hope it gave them a smile on this sunny Saturday.

 

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Two seasons and at least one ocean separate today’s guest poster, Yen-Fang Heng of Australia, from my summery poem-elf perch in northern Michigan, and yet we might as well be sitting side-by-side for how much the poem she selected belongs to every moment of my day. I do love that little birdie she drew.

 

Yen also posted “Home” by Somali-poet Warsan Shire on a community bulletin board.  It’s a much-needed addition to the global conversation about “sheltering in place.” I’ve included an animated version of the poem.

 

Thank you, Yen, for your poem selections and thoughtful commentary.

*

 

Spring (Again)

by Michael Ryan

 

The birds were louder this morning,

raucous, oblivious, tweeting their teensy bird-brains out.

It scared me, until I remembered it’s spring.

How do they know it? A stupid question.

Thank you, birdies.  I had forgotten how promise feels.

 

Here is the poem I chose because it is short and sweet and because I could illustrate it with one of my drawings!  I am afraid I do not know anything about Michael Ryan, I just came across his poem in one of the many poetry blogs, emails I subscribe to.  I googled his name and found out that he is 74 years old and taught creative writing and literature in the University of California, Irvine.  I love the words, how they are replete with the promise and the potential of spring and new beginnings.  And I love how I could accompany it with one of my sketches.  It is not spring where I am, but to me the words herald the spring ahead of us, when Covid-19 is contained, and the promises that that brings.

 

Like everyone else in the world, we are in isolation, although there has been slight easing of the lockdown in Australia.  I left this poem on the hedges in the park near where I live.  Hopefully it will survive the weather for long enough so that various people will come across it and read it and enjoy the promises of spring.

 

*

 

 

In these days of Covid-19, we are all being asked to stay home.  Juxtaposed against this backdrop are the draconian policies against refugees and asylum seekers being perpetrated by the Australian government (the country of which I am a citizen) and by numerous governments in countries that are relatively well-off.  For all those refugees, where is home?  This poem, Home, by Warsan Shire is gut-wrenching but is a timely reminder of why refugees flee:

 

‘no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying-

leave,

run away from me now

I don’t know what I’ve become

but I know that anywhere

is safer than here’

 

Those of us who have homes to stay in, do we ever stop to think about what is it like not to have a home to go to?  Not to have a home to shelter in?

 

I wanted to post this on a community noticeboard near where I live.  I don’t really have an ‘inspired’ place to leave the poem, but I figured that at least on the noticeboard, it is sheltered (there’s that word again) and away from rain, and hopefully may last for a little while, so that as many people as possible will get to read these incredibly moving, incredibly realistic words.  Warsan is a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London.  However, when I copied the poem onto a piece of paper, it was too long!  I realised then how much goes into the choice of a poem.

 

Home

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

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

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

under trains

beneath carriages

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

pitied

 

no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

or prison,

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

 

the

go home blacks

refugees

dirty immigrants

asylum seekers

sucking our country dry

niggers with their hands out

they smell strange

savage 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

your legs

or the insults are easier

to swallow

than rubble

than bone

than your child’s body in pieces.

 

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 home

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

drown

save

be hungry

beg

forget pride

your survival is more important

 

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying

leave,

run away from me now

I don’t know what I’ve become

but I know that anywhere

is safer than here

 

 

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Here’s a great suggestion for summer travel from today’s guest poster Cathey Capers of Austin Texas: memorize a poem as you drive. I don’t know Cathey but I have a whole movie in my head of her driving along the coast and reciting Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” sometimes getting the words right and sometimes having to start over until the poem is all hers, forever connected to that that time in her life, to that highway, to the views outside her window.

 

Thanks, Cathey!

 

 

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

From Cathey:

During National Poetry Month (April) I erected a poetry fence in my front yard where I and anyone can post poems. I decided to keep it up during the pandemic as its clear that people enjoy and perhaps need this relief.  Your invitation has brought me farther afield . . .

 

“The Peace of Wild Things” was the first poem I voluntarily learned by heart as an adult. I was traveling to the coast and brought it along in the car to relieve the depression I often feel driving past mile after mile of big box stores!  It has been such medicine through the years that I can take myself or offer others.

 

During these pandemic weeks, I’ve noted many community members, families, taking advantage of a hike and bike trail along Ladybird Lake (Named for Ladybird Johnson). This lake runs right through the heart of our town (Austin, Texas) from East to West and has portions of boardwalk above the water. There are also green lawns on both sides of the lake this time of year. It attracts such a diverse population that I thought it would be the perfect place to post the poem.  I hope to catch a heron feeding but alas, only missed one flying by.

 

*

 

Short bio of Berry from a previous post:

 

Poet Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is an interesting fellow and prolific writer. Link here for more details. The short version:  he’s a poet, novelist, essayist, environmental activist but not wholly a traditional one, and full-time farmer. He was friends with fellow Kentuckian Thomas Merton, the famous monk who wrote Seven Story Mountain. 

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The ninth day commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life.

 

I Want to Breathe

by James Laughlin

 

I want to breathe

 

you in I’m not talking about

perfume or even the sweet odour

 

of your skin but of the

air itself I want to share

 

your air inhaling what you

exhale I’d like to be that

 

close two of us breathing

each other as one as that

 

 

 

“I Want to Breathe” is a love poem, one I’ve featured before in a less fraught context. I’m featuring it again to close out this series not just because the title and the first line echo Floyd’s last words (“I can’t breathe”) but because it is a love poem. A poem to remember that George Floyd was not just a man murdered by police but a man who was loved in his lifetime by his family and friends; a man loved after his death by millions the world over; a man whose life and death inspires love between people united in outrage and grief.

 

And so here is a poem of breath shared from one person to another, an expression of a desire to be loving and close. We are born for connection. We live in shared space. We share earth. We share air. Deep within we want to share ourselves.

 

I want to share

 

your air inhaling what you

exhale I’d like to be that

 

close two of us breathing

each other as one as that

 

The law of the conservation of matter tells us that matter can transform but never disappear. Our air—made of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and sometimes water vapors—is ancient. The air we breathe now is the same air our ancestors breathed. The same air as our neighbors breathe. The same as our enemies. It’s possible the very air George Floyd exhaled in his last moments was inhaled by those who murdered him.

 

Maybe there is redemption in that for them.

 

*

 

A brief memoriam for our fellow breather on planet Earth:

 

George Perry Floyd (1973-2020), born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, raised in a Houston housing project. Called “Perry” by his family. Played basketball and football in high school, recruited to play basketball for South Florida State College, transferred to Texas A&M to play basketball, dropped out. Had a brief music career as rapper “Big Floyd.” Worked as a car customizer. Mentored young men from the housing project he grew up in. Went to church. Struggled with addiction. Went to jail. Started over in Minneapolis. Drove trucks, worked for the Salvation Army, worked security at a nightclub. Lost his job because of coronavirus shutdowns. Got coronavirus himself. Read the bible. Prayed with his roommates. A six-foot six-inch tall man known for his hugs and his jokes. Over and over described as a “gentle giant.” A kind man, a caring man. A loving man. A man who fell, got up, tried again, fell, got up, fell. Was crushed.

 

A man who had his mother’s name tattooed on his chest. A man who loved his mother and was loved by his mother.

 

A man who is described by his girlfriend this way:  “He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.” A man his childhood friend Meshah Hawkins describes as a “sweetie pie.” A sweetie pie.

 

Rest in peace, sweetie pie. Rest in peace, gentle giant. Rest in peace, George Perry Floyd.

 

 

*

 

Two friends described this nine-day project as a novena (a novena is nine days of repeated prayers for an urgent petition), and so it’s only fitting to end with a poem that is also a prayer. My sister forwarded me this one. It’s written by a rising sophomore at Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school in Washington, D.C. located less than a mile from the Capitol building. [Gonzaga is also home to one of the first poets I featured on this blog, legendary English teacher Rick Cannon, who retired this spring.] In “Prayer for Change” young poet Richard Scott writes movingly of his hope for permanent change. Thank you, Richard! Keep on writing.

 

 

I left “Prayer for Change” on the opposite side of “I Want to Breathe.” The two poems flank a statue named “The Freedom of the Human Spirit.”

 

 

Prayer for Change

by Richard Scott

 

I pray for healing in Ferguson

I pray for healing in Minneapolis

I pray for healing in New York

I pray for healing in Baltimore

 

I pray that we will continue to run for Ahmaud

I pray that we will blast our music for Jordan

I pray that we will continue to kneel with Kap

I pray that the police stop killing us

 

I pray that 911 is a beacon of safety, not death

I pray the next time my hands are raised it’s in a classroom

I pray that the voices of the unheard are amplified

I pray that the color of my skin won’t get me killed

 

I pray that Martin’s dream doesn’t become a nightmare

I pray that Rosa’s bravery isn’t blinded by cowards

I pray that Maya’s words are never erased

I pray for change

 

 

*

Note:  Last night as I taped the final two poems to the marble orbs in Shain Park, all but the first two poems were still there. Edges curled, some faded, but still hanging on.

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The final two poems of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life will shift from poems of protest to poems of solidarity.

 

*

 

Day eight, minute eight. We are near the end. He lays silent and still in the street. He is alone, he is in this moment friendless, he has no one to hold his hand or comfort him or gaze upon him with love as he breathes his last. It is a horror.

 

*

 

 

Only Breath

by Rumi

 

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu

Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

 

or cultural system. I am not from the East

or the West, not out of the ocean or up

 

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not

composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

 

am not an entity in this world or in the next,

did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

 

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace

of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

 

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one and that one call to and know,

 

first, last, outer, inner, only that

breath breathing human being.

 

 

 

I’m drawn to this poem more than I really understand it. There’s balm here, a resting spot to breathe calmly as we take in a world where a black man, as so many before him, was denied the right to breathe, who begged another man to let him breathe.

 

In this time of division, with so many people aching to rid the world of division and the injustice and pain division brings, Rumi wipes the slate clean. There is a reality beyond division, he says. Beyond the division of religion and country of origin. He just as easily could be talking about divisions of ethnicity, skin tone, political party, social class.

 

This reality exists even beyond the divisions between species and between beings from this world and the next.

 

It’s the reality of being beloved. Of existing in a state of being loved.

 

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one

 

We are the beloved, all of us, and every last atom of creation. And if you don’t believe in a loving creative entity, there is still the fact of love itself, the fact that it has always existed and always will, the miracle of it, the power of it.

 

I stop here with the poem because I can’t understand the last lines about the breath and I keep hearing John Donne in my ear—

 

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 

Emphasis mine. Going to repeat it.

 

any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

 

*

 

A biography of Rumi from a previous post:

Rumi, born to a wealthy family in 1207, eventually settled in modern day Turkey.  He wrote over 70,000 verses in 25 years or, as I figure, about 7 ½ poems every day.  A religious figure, he is considered a Muslim saint.  His staying power comes not only from the beauty and emotional expressiveness of his poems, but his teachings of tolerance and peace.  He’s such towering figure of interfaith unity that Pope John XXIII was moved to say in 1958, “In the name of the Catholic World, I bow with respect before the memory of Rumi.”

 

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Day seven of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life.

 

 

America

by Claude McKay

 

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate,

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

 

 

Sonnets are elegant and sturdy things, holding in all manner of ideas and imagery safely behind glass, the curio cabinet of poetry forms. Claude McKay’s “America” uses the sonnet’s tidy structure to carry his righteous anger and the load nearly causes a collapse.

 

The racism in America that McKay encountered after emigrating from Jamaica shocked him, stealing my breath of life, as he says in this poem. He calls America a cultured hell, a beast intent on killing him with her tiger’s tooth. Still and all, he loves the bigness and energy of his adopted country and feels no terror, malice, not a word of jeer towards it. Which is why the turn he makes at the end of this sonnet comes as a shock—

 

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand

 

I can’t read that without thinking about another sonnet, Shelley’s “Ozymandius” —

 

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

So goes, we hope, we pray, the way of boastful, abusive power. Into the sands of time, wrecked and buried.

 

*

 

Claude McKay (1889-1948) was born in Jamaica, the youngest of seven in a family of farmers. He began writing poetry early, under the encouragement of an older brother.

 

After apprenticing as a cabinetmaker in Jamaica and finding success with poems written in a Jamaican dialect, he moved to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute. He left after two months, disliking the militarism and segregation he found there, and transferred to Kansas State University. He studied agriculture for two years and then moved to New York, working as a bartender, longshoreman and waiter. He briefly married his high school sweetheart, with whom he had one daughter.

 

Mckay was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and his poem “If We Must Die” is sometimes considered the movement’s inaugural poem. Besides poetry, McKay wrote four novels, a collection of short stories, two memoirs and a non-fiction history of Harlem.

 

A bisexual, McKay was an early advocate of gay rights and acceptance. He visited the Soviet Union several times, leading to him becoming the first black writer tracked by the FBI. Later he would renounce Communism and the repression it bred. In the last ten years of his life he became an American citizen and a Catholic convert. He moved to Chicago to work for a Catholic service organization and died a few years later of died of congestive heart failure at age 58.

 

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Day six of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life. The sixth minute is when Floyd became unresponsive.

 

Still I Rise

by Maya Angelou

 

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

 

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

 

 

The first verse of this poem is so famous it might as well be tattooed on our national conscious. It’s that perfect. I could re-read it a hundred times and it would never fail to give pleasure.

 

The rest of the poem is less familiar but no less quotable. Verse after verse Angelou rolls through barriers, growing in stature and strength like a super hero batting off bullets and punches and ramming cars and speeding trains.

 

(Angelou always seemed ahead of her time, and here, decades before Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle, Angelou claims the right of women to boast of their reproductive parts just as men do—

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

But that’s not the point of this post. I just really like that verse.)

 

Her fierce faith in herself, in her people, in the tide of history speaks to this moment like no other, and I pray describes George Floyd’s life after death—

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

 

*

A [very long because her life is so interesting] biography from a previous post:

 

Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, but after her parents’ divorce when she was 3 or 4, was sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Over the years she was shuffled back and forth between her mother and grandmother, eventually landing in San Francisco. During one of the visits with her mother, when she was 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided in her brother, who told the family. The rapist was sent to jail, released after a day, and then murdered, reportedly by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou stopped speaking. She blamed her speaking out for his death.

 

With the help of a teacher, the appropriately named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou started speaking four or five years later. And then her life took off. She became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar driver while still in high school. She gave birth at 17 to a boy, and worked as a waitress and cook to support herself and her child. She married a white man, a Greek sailor and musician, despite the difficulties of interracial marriage at the time. She studied dance under Martha Graham, and formed a dance partnership with Alvin Ailey before he became famous.

 

She sang and danced at a nightclub. She recorded a Calypso album in 1957 and wrote and performed in an off-Broadway review called Calypso HeatWave and later a film based on that show. She toured Europe in Porgy and Bess. As she traveled, she taught herself the language of every country she visited. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and a West African language called Fanti.

 

In 1959 she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending James Baldwin who became her mentor. Upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak, she became an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.51.49 PMIn 1961 she performed in a Jean Genet play, The Blacks, along with legendary actors Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones. She moved to Cairo with her son, where she worked as an editor at an English language newspaper, and on to Ghana where she served as an administrator at a university.

 

Angelou was devastated by the assassinations of her close friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Shortly after she produced a 10-part documentary on the blues.

 

She wrote the first of her seven autobiographies in 1969 (the last one published when she was 83), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote a screenplay, she wrote soundtracks, she acted in the television mini-series Roots and several other shows, she wrote music for singer Roberta Flack (listen here) and B.B. King (and here). She gave the inaugural poem for President Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. In 1996 she directed a feature film with Wesley Snipes. Along the way she published cookbooks, earned over 50 honorary degrees and awards–a Tony, an Emmy and the National Medal of Freedom among them–and in her last few months worked on the posthumous album I mentioned earlier.

 

Her biography is exhausting. A lifetime of nonstop creativity. She died in 2014 at age 86.

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Day four of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

What Do We Do—Now

by Ellen Hagan

 

 

—after Gwendolyn Brooks

 

We mourn, we bless,

we blow, we wail, we

wind—down, we sip,

we spin, we blind, we

bend, bow & hem. We

hip, we blend, we bind,

we shake, we shine,

shine. We lips & we

teeth, we praise & protest.

We document & we

drama. We demand &

we flow, fold & hang

loose. We measure &

we moan, mourn & whine

low. & we live, and we

breathe. & some of the time,

we don’t.

 

Tonight, I am here. Here

& tired. Here & awake,

sure, & alive. Yes here &

still, still here, still & here

& still awake & still still

alive.

 

 

Most of us read Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” in high school, and if your education was like mine, the lens through which we read it was her use of the vernacular—

 

We real cool. We

Left school. We

 

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

 

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

 

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

 

Reading it again after so many years, my focus is pulled to the last lines, and I shudder. All the life in the poem, all the bragging, all the rhythm and it just comes down to one thing:  We/die soon.

 

Poet Ellen Hagan riffs on Brooks’ poem in “What We Do—Now.” Hagan’s poem is written in an aftermath. The aftermath of loss. Perhaps the aftermath of the deaths in Brooks’ poems. The poem’s title “What We Do—Now” can be read as a question born of exhaustion and grief. What do we do now?  

 

The list that follows is exhausting, a litany of thirty-one verbs (and some nouns used as verbs) in the long, rapid-fire first stanza. Mourning is listed twice. Mourning is driving all the other activity.

 

The second stanza takes a breath. It’s enough, the speaker suggests, just to be alive at this moment, to breathe, to be awake, to survive.

 

I go back to these lines

 

. . . and we

breathe. & some of the time,

we don’t.

 

and I think of George Floyd trying to breathe and Eric Garner trying to breathe and all the men and women we’ve never heard of who were just trying to breathe. And our collective breath as a nation, as a world, ragged now and anxious, wishing that simple act could not be taken away from the powerless.

 

 

Ellen Hagan is a writer, educator, activist and performer. She lives in New York City where she directs the poetry program at the DreamYard Project.

 

 

Note:  I was wrong when I said on the first day of this project that there would probably never be a protest in this peaceable park. One was beginning just as I left.

 

 

It was the second day of protest for these young people, and they were expecting dozens more to arrive. Later that evening a protest march gathered at City Hall to walk to Woodward Boulevard, the artery connecting the city of Detroit to its tonier suburbs.

 

Found this on my walk home—

 

 

 

 

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Day three of commemorating the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

4/30/92 for Rodney King

by Lucille Clifton

 

so

the body

of one black man

is rag and stone

is mud

and blood

the body of one

black man

contains no life

worth loving

so the body

of one black man

is nobody

mama

mama

mamacita

is there no value

in this skin

mama

mama

if we are nothing

why

should we spare

the neighborhood

mama

mama

who will be next and

why should we save

the pictures

 

 

Lucille Clifton’s “4/30/92 for Rodney King” looks like someone kicked it in at the sides, pounded it to thinness like a piece of meat. The dehumanizing of the black body in the poem’s form and imagery (the body/of one black man/ is rag and stone/is mud and blood) is broken up by a most human response to distress—mama/mama/mamacita. Seven times that voice cries out for help.

 

Rodney King, for those too young to remember or who may not even have been born yet, was beaten by police following a car chase in Los Angeles in March 1991. For fifteen minutes the unarmed King was kicked, stomped on, beaten with batons and tasered by four police officers. The beating only came to light because a man happened to film it from a nearby balcony. The tape was sent to a news station after the LAPD showed no interest in it.

 

In April of 1992, when the four offending officers were acquitted of using excessive force, a five-day riot broke out in the city. Fifty people were killed, 2,000 injured, and over one billion was lost in property. Rodney King was both ridiculed and hailed for a statement he made on television asking for calm during the riots: “I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along?”

 

For a more complete account of the beating and riots, link here.

 

If you have the stomach for it after all the violence we’ve witnessed over the past few days, watch the video of the beating here. Low-quality and grainy as it is, the film shows Rodney King attempt to rise, get beaten down, roll over in pain, get rolled back by the police for more beating, then lie still as the beating continues. Just a body to those police officers. A man to anyone with eyes.

 

Clifton’s closing questions, unfortunately, have the ring of prophecy.

 

who will be next and

why should we save

the pictures

 

*

 

A brief biography of Clifton from a previous post:

 

Lucille Clifton was born in New York in 1936.  Her father was a steelworker who sexually abused her, and her mother was a laundress and gifted poet with little formal education. At age sixteen Clifton attended Howard University as a drama major.  She finished her studies in New York.

 

 

She had six children with her husband Fred, a professor at the University of Buffalo.  She was the poet laureate of my home state of Maryland where she eventually settled. She won the National Book Award and was the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Ruth Lilly Prize. She had a separate career as a writer of children’s books and the most unusual career for a famous poet I’ve ever heard of:  Jeopardy show champion.  She died in 2010 at age 73.

 

*

Note:  The “Minute Two” poem I put up yesterday is still taped to its marble orb in the park—

 

 

 

 

 

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Day two, commemorating the second minute of the last moments of George Floyd’s life:

 

 

Let Them Not Say

by Jane Hirshfield

 

Let them not say:   we did not see it.

We saw.

 

Let them not say:   we did not hear it.

We heard.

 

Let them not say:    they did not taste it.

We ate, we trembled.

 

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.

We spoke,

we witnessed with voices and hands.

 

Let them not say:    they did nothing.

We did not-enough.

 

Let them say, as they must say something:

 

A kerosene beauty.

It burned.

 

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,

read by its light, praised,

and it burned.

 

 

Instead of we came, we saw, we conquered, poet Jane Hirshfield posits a different course:  we saw, we heard, we tasted, we witnessed, and we did not-enough. Admitting failure instead of bragging about conquest. That’s the way forward.

 

Today at the square the poem I left yesterday had been removed. And it rained last night so today’s poem is probably gone as well. But I hope at least some of the people in the park wondered what I was doing and read the poems after I left.

 

 

 

A brief biography of Hirshfield from an earlier post:

Jane Hirshfield was born in 1953 in New York City.  After graduating from the first Princeton class to include women, she moved to San Francisco to study Zen Buddhism for eight years. She’s published eight books of poetry and, as a translator of Japanese poetry, helped popularize tanka in the United States. She’s won numerous awards and taught at many universities including Stanford, Duke and Univerisity of Virginia.

 

 

 

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