Thursday, January 16, 2020

For SFMoMA's Open Space: A Paper Person

New post up at SFMoMA's Open Space, first of four as columnist-in-residence. The old world meets the same old, same old; American history, etc. You can also find here a piece I wrote for Open Space's "Interwoven" last spring, "Liberty and Luxury." 

Though this new piece isn't an excerpt from Wite Out, my forthcoming book, it does address some things explored in that book and its prequel, The Public Gardens: Poems and History (2011). #Dorchester Days, #EmmettTill, #JamesBaldwin, #FannyHowe, #BernadetteDevlin, #RoevWade, #BrownvBoard, #TheSoilingofOldGlory, #ToniMorrison, #archives, #notebooks, #collages, #IrishAmericans, #ItalianAmericans, #racism . . .

From Old Notebooks

Sunday, July 7, 2019

New chapbook, DARK WHITE, published this week


Does the rain have a mother?
Who made the drops of dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice?
She is hardened against her young ones
As though they were not hers.
The face of the deep is frozen.

Cover photo: Anonymous photographer, Palermo, 1924. 

     Friends who do not fail us
     Mary in our hour of
     despair. Take not
     away from me the small fires
     I burn in the memory of love.
           -JOHN WIENERS
     The maiden language all over.

My chapbook, DARK WHITE, will be published by Omertà this month. This little book includes the title piece, "Dark White," "Small Square" (ars poetica), "Feminine," "My Mystic," "My Mary,"  "Begin in Blue," "Words Looking for a Street," and "In My Girlish Days" (all of which have been published in little magazines, some of which can be found elsewhere on this blog). "My Mary" is an erasure+ of pages from The Book of Job (from a wet Bible I found in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, two years after Hurricane Katrina). 

I doubt that Omertà ("Omertà, as practiced by the Mafia: A Code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to the authorities") has ever published a book more relevant to its name. Thanks to Les Gottesman for adding my work to a list that includes chapbooks by Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima, Donna De La Perriere, Denise Newman, and many other writers I admire. 

DARK WHITE is a small sampler of work from the full-length memoir with poems, WITE OUT, that Hanging Loose Press will publish in the spring of 2020. I’m extremely grateful to Robert Hershon, Mark Pawlak, Dick Lourie, and Donna Brook for making a home for a manuscript that was orphaned after the death of our friend and my first publisher, Bill Corbett.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

"Liberty and Luxury" essay at SFMoMA's Open Space

Last week SFMoMA's Open Space published my essay, 
Liberty and Luxury, in their Interwoven special issue.

You can read it here

Thanks to Gordon Faylor and Claudia La Rocco 
for brilliant collaboration, editing, and design.

 "She tells me what happens to fabric when you put it in your mouth (saliva dissolves rayon, but strengthens linen). Says that if you’re cutting and sewing sequined fabric, be sure to wear goggles to protect your eyes. And never set polyester on fire. Once, she says, a customer came into the store and asked for silk orgasma. You can see how that would happen here — this place inspires lust."

Sunday, April 7, 2019



Holy Week

      A song of degrees, of pilgrimage, as in the Psalms of David

My brothers all have died,
the boys I held when they were small,
when I was small,
the boys I fed and shoved.

Should I lie down with them and keep them warm
or step over them to live?

Or should I crawl across their bodies in pilgrimage
the way my grandmother climbed the concrete steps to the shrine
on her knees, with me one step behind her at her elbow,
her pocketbook swinging at my face
every time she took a step—

In the parlor of her apartment she had a tapestry of the Roman Colosseum
and a crucifix and a picture of Pope John the 23rd
and houseplants in coffee cans on the windowsills—
marvetta, coleus, basilico.

One year after her death at 92, I went to Rome for the first time.
It was Holy Week and all the stores were closed—chiuso, chiuso, chiuso.
I was six weeks pregnant.
At the Colosseum I kept stumbling over imaginary statuary,
petrified feet and hands in the grass.
Who died here?
I kneeled to vomit in the weeds. 
Fata da forta, my grandmother used to say. Make yourself strong.

I walk around the bodies of my brothers,
arranging their limbs, tracing the contours of their faces
I will remember the clean smell of the grass that grew at the Colosseum
and in the cracks in the steps to the shrine
and I will write about it in a book.


Today, April 7th, is my brother Joseph Norton's birthday. He died of AIDS in New York City on October 2, 1986. He was twenty-four. He would have been 57 if he had lived. It's also Billie Holiday's birthday. 

This poem is from my 2011 book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History. In Lent I always think of my grandmother and the crosses she'd weave from palms every year on the Sunday before Easter. And I think of my brother. 

@AIDSMemorial kindly reposted my tribute to Joseph today. You may read it here. And you may visit his memorial at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a beautiful place. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

On the tenth anniversary of the murder of Oscar Grant and the inauguration of Barack Obama


Oscar Grant, unarmed, on his belly, shot in the back and killed by police at Fruitvale Station. Caught on video. How many times has this happened in American history and there was no evidence? And even when there is evidence, like that video of Rodney King, the police are unaccountable.
At work in a team meeting, small talk turns to things in the news—a Black president! I mention Oscar Grant. My boss shakes his head. “If he’d just stayed down and done what the police told him to do, he’d still be alive.”
No one says anything. Ben and I exchange glances. Jennifer tilts her head and smiles brightly at I don’t know what.
I’m the oldest on our team. They can make my life miserable but they can’t fire me. I should speak.
“But he did stay down. He was as down as he could be when they shot him.”
They ignore me. But I’m sure they heard me.
And Marcus—where is Marcus? He has disappeared. His grandmother says she hasn’t seen him since he got off probation.
White anarchists come to Oakland to smash windows and set things on fire and then they go home to Berkeley. The cop who shot Oscar Grant lives in Napa. Why don’t they go to Napa and tear it up? Or to Marin? Or down to Fourth Street in Berkeley, where the ice cream costs six dollars a scoop. Are there no racists in those places? Nothing that needs to be smashed or broken or lit up?
The phone rings, a number I don’t recognize. Marcus.
“My grandmother said you’d be thinking of me. She said I should call you.”
“I’m so glad you did.”
We make a plan to meet at Lanesplitter.
Inauguration night. Isabel and I go to Jack London Square for a block party near Everett and Jones. We’re the only white people there. We stand on the curb at the back of the crowd while people dance in the street. On a huge outdoor movie screen, they’re repeating a holy trinity of images: a lynching in the Jim Crow South; the face of the first Black president; and a picture of Oscar Grant. I explain to Isabel, as succinctly as possible, why those things go together.
I grew up kneeling beneath Jesus on the cross. It doesn’t seem strange to me that suffering and crucifixion and resurrection are part of the same story.
Bells in the campanile played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” tonight as I was leaving work.
In the locker room the tune comes into my head and I start to hum as I put my clothes on. In the other rows, a few women start to hum along. Then we sing the words softly.
As I leave, I look down the aisles and note that each of the singers is white. Someone apparently taught us something.
Stanley calls to tell me that he and Susan took the F train all the way into Manhattan to see “La Boheme.” It was a long trip but they were exhilarated. I’m sure she was dressed to the nines. He was so excited on the phone, he started singing the overture. I joined in.
Then Richard called and I turned up “Haul Away Joe” and we sang to that together.
Isabel listened and laughed while she did her homework.
Last night Isabel explained that a violin piece was difficult because she didn’t even know there was a note like G natural.
Tonight her practice was beautiful and deliberate and sour. Sounded like she was squeezing juice from citrus fruits.

Walter Benjamin: I would like to make something from books the way wine is made from grapes.

Tulsa and Rosewood—the few white families who offered shelter to Black people—very few—

The same stars that looked down on the crucifixion—some of those stars—presided over lynchings—and look down on us now—

"Every woman who has ever kept a diary knows that women write in diaries because things are not going right." - From Mary Helen Washington's introduction to the Memphis diaries of Ida B. Wells

The perfect book, one in which I write between the lines.
Even the most incorrigible maverick has to be born somewhere. [She] may leave the group that produced [her]—[she] may be forced to—but nothing will efface [her] origins, the marks of which [she] carries with her everywhere. I think it is important to know this and even find it a matter for rejoicing, as the strongest people do, regardless of their station. On this acceptance, literally, the life of a writer depends. – James Baldwin, from “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American"

(And of course the writer must constantly change the pronouns to include herself in all that she reads—”rejoicing, even” that she has lived long enough to learn to do this.)


Last night I went to Seder at Naomi’s. She asked me to bring dessert. Her Chanukah parties and Seders and her kids’ bar mitzvahs are highlights of my spiritual life. Every year at these gathering someone asks me if I’m Jewish and Naomi tells them that I’m Jew-ey. This year I accidentally made bread pudding for her Seder.

Two weeks ago June invited me to a fancy fundraiser for children of incarcerated parents, and there I met a lawyer named William who does policy work to change the school-to-prison pipeline. We struck up a conversation, talked about the system, and decided to get together later. When I got home I Googled him and learned that he’s really good at what he does. But in the pictures online he looks merely overweight. In person he is morbidly obese.

Last night I met him for dinner at Le Cheval. We put our napkins in our laps. His covered only a tiny portion of his enormous belly and thighs, like a loin cloth. I said, “Did you always know that you were supposed to put the napkin in your lap? Cause I didn’t learn it until I went to college. We put our napkins under our chins like bibs.”

He said his mother had taught him etiquette and such. He said his parents were very involved in the NAACP when his father was stationed in Norfolk, and they met a white family named Dineen who was also involved in the struggle. The Dineens invited his family to dinner.

I said, “Oh, Dineen is my sister-in-law’s maiden name. Her father was a New York City police detective.”

The NYPD, a kind of anti-NAACP.

William looked at me as if I were a subordinate who’d interrupted his monologue.

“Go on,” I said.

“We had never been invited to white folks’ house. My mother made us practice our table manners over and over before the big night. But when we got there we found out that the Dineens were slobs. They didn’t care about nothing but The Cause. There were pamphlets and posters and papers piled all over every surface. Mrs. Dineen stirred the gravy with her cigarette hanging out of her mouth, the ash about to fall into the pan any minute. When we sat down to eat she just shoved all the paperwork onto the floor. They didn’t have no napkins and their plates were chipped and didn’t match. Those white folks were like John Brown or something. Fanatics!”

“What a great story,” I said. But he didn’t seem to understand why it was funny, or why it might appeal to me. “Hmmmph. I don’t care much for stories.” Suddenly I remembered learning about the four humors, sanguine, bilious, phlegmatic, and melancholic. Here was an example of the phlegmatic.

He seemed fatter than he did when I met him two weeks ago. It’s like he has a two-foot barrier all around him, and in this way he reminded me of someone unlike him in most respects: my mother.

He has never married or lived with a woman but he says he plans to look for a companion when he retires.

I said, “Do you think it will be that easy to find someone whenever you’re ready?”

He snorted and said, “I’m a black man with a job. There’ll always be some black woman who’ll put up with me.”


I asked him about his family. He said his mother and sister had both died in the last few years. He’d helped with some insurance paperwork but had been on the road, giving keynote speeches and such, and had been too busy to be there when they passed. I murmured condolences but he brushed them off; he wasn’t sad. I asked him if he had children. He hesitated and said yes. A white woman in law school had wanted to have a child and raise it on her own. He’d already scheduled a vasectomy but agreed to inseminate her by appointment.

He seems to take a purely administrative approach to all human affairs.

He doesn’t like kids, really. Doesn’t have the patience. He said he admires me for my work in the foster care system, though his sister, a social worker, doesn’t believe in white people raising Black kids, “but someone’s gotta do it.”

“I’m not raising them,” I said. “I’m an adjunct. And I understand your sister’s point of view.”

(I didn’t bother to add: When we were teenagers, Ma used to call the Department of Child Services and scream and beg them to take us off her hands. Adolescents of any race are not in high demand.)

Next we talked about non-profit accounting and houseplants. He’s researching the purchase of a large rubber plant for his foyer. He talked about that for a long time. When I tried to break up his monologue, he leaned back with his hands over his belly, waited for me to shut up, and picked up where he’d left off.


The photo that illustrates this blog post was taken in Boston, where and when I grew up. This is an excerpt from Wite Out, a memoir with poems, which will be published by Hanging Loose on the cusp of 2019-2020.

Monday, December 10, 2018


Posted on Emily Dickinson's birthday.

This is an excerpt from my second book, Wite Out, a memoir with poems, to be published by Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn) in fall 2019.  

                                          Volcanoes be in Sicily -- Emily Dickinson

      Dark White

We have one mother and some fathers, we come from clan. O the poverty of our identity, to be so proud of what we guess we are. I am a church of that. Of such weightless stone I build my plinth, with color alone.  - Robert Kelly, from"Berlin Sonnets"


Flying out of Boston after a conference in Cambridge. Theory, theory, theory, and a professor rhapsodizing about spanking. And there was a talk about the amygdala. ("The amygdala receives inputs from all senses as well as visceral inputs.")

The plane leaving Logan swooped so low over the South Shore, I could see Ma's laundry on the line—her polyester pants, her dish towels. Across the inlet from the back of our house, the shipyard and the Proctor and Gamble stacks. Sometimes, when I was a teenager, the air was so thick with the smell of Ivory Soap, I'd gag. "That's not pollution," Ma would say. "That's clean."

In the ship's manifest for the Giuseppe Verdi on which my mother's parents traveled from Palermo to Ellis Island in 1924, there is a column where they note the complexion of each Sicilian immigrant—dark, fair, swarthy, yellow, whatever. This category doesn't appear on the manifests of ships that came from Ireland, like the Scythia on which my father's mother arrived from Cobh that same year. There’s also a place to note identifying marks on the faces of the Italians from the South; a lot of men had scars on their faces.

Anarchists had bombed Salutation Street in the North End and many other targets, Sacco and Vanzetti had been unjustly prosecuted, all Italians were suspect. Most of the Sicilians on the ship Giuseppe Verdi are called “dark white,” but there must have been some question on board about my mother's mother; "fair" is noted, then crossed out.

There’s a drawbridge between our house and the shipyard and soap factory. Ma says her father, a cement mason from Salemi, worked on it for the WPA in 1936. He was a tyrant, they say; volcanic.

In Sicily, he and my grandmother grew up near Erice. A volcano and goddesses and work, that's the heritage. When my mother's father was a baby in the province of Trapani, Emily Dickinson was still alive in Amherst (her father: "Vesuvius at home").

A Rose is an Estate in Sicily - Emily Dickinson

At sunset, washing the dishes and looking north, I thought the black Ivory smokestacks against the sky were beautiful.


When I told my grandmother I was going to visit Chicago, she crossed her arms over her chest and frowned. “Chicago—lotta blacka people!”

My sister laughed. “Yeah, Nonie, that’s why she wants to go there.”

 “Oh, stop it, Caroline,” I said. But I laughed too.

“Che cosa? Che fai?” Nonie was confused. No capisce.

“Never mind, Nonie.”
Nonie wanted to tell me something; my mother translated.

     She says that when she came to this country she didn’t understand no English and she didn’t know no one and my father locked her up in that place in East Boston on the top floor.

     She says she heard kids playing in the street and wondered why they weren’t working.

     She says when she was a girl in Salemi all the kids worked. They did piece work—made doll dresses like the ones she crochets for you girls.

     She says the boys worked in the salt pans or watched sheep or picked

     She says when her baby brother Nicolo died of cholera she helped her mother dress him in a little suit.

     She says it was hard to get his arms into the sleeves.

Last year I told my mother the story about Nonie saying, “Lotta blacka people!”

My mother said defensively, “Oh, but Nonie liked some black people. She really liked Tina Turner.”

“Huh? How did she know about Tina Turner?”

“Oh, she pretended she didn't speak no English, but she watched her talka showas, and all that stuff that Tina Turner talked about—the things Ike did to her, the beatings— that’s what my father did to Nonie.”


On my volcano grows the Grass. A meditative spot - Emily Dickinson

My daughter at six dreamed she was an “international playboy,” though she had no idea what that was. She curled up beside me; I gave her a sip of my juice. I told her what I’d been reading for my reading group: The Life of.

I didn’t tell her about the really white woman in the group who often mentioned her fair skin and famous husband. Reading, I was deciding, was something to do alone or with one other: this little one, my girl.

In bed I tell my daughter about Boswell, who listened to everything Samuel Johnson said and wrote it down. She kissed her own hand, thinking it was mine, and wondered aloud, “Who was Boswell’s Boswell?”

Fair-minded little Portia, my Isabel with her crooked bangs (I cut them wrong).

She seems so mellow now, but is she? Did she stir inside me as I watched a tantrum, that boy in fatigues shooting a toy gun at his pregnant mother? “Please take his gun away,” I did not say. This was on the F train. I gave up my seat for her though I was also pregnant. But I wasn’t visibly anything.
Our women were clean, especially the Italians. The Irish said Italians were dirty. In the South End, when my mother was six, my grandmother went to work in a factory, sewing men’s uniforms alongside Sicilian, Syrian, and Lebanese immigrants.
We were dark white, but in New England we were immaculate.
Snow made me, I said to summer when I missed the winter.

When it was winter, I burned.

   Lizzie Borden took her axe
   Gave her mother forty whacks
   When she saw what she had done
   Gave her father forty-one

Bunch of little Catholics in the schoolyard, jumping rope to Yankee gore. “La la la” is one thing sung, another thing in chalk or cursive. In type it has no tongue.

We were happy when jumping, didn’t mind the drizzle, were too young to bleed or even know about it. The boys played far away, another species. They ran around with sharpened sticks; we chanted murder.

Now I know that it was very hot when (they say) Lizzie Borden slaughtered her parents. And she had her period when she did it (did she do it?). And her father had killed her pigeons.

My father’s people were Irish, and instead of sewing and eating and fighting, they drank and sang and fought.

Packed into the back seat of the car, we belted out:

     She had a baby six months old,
     Weela weela wallia
     She had a baby six months old
     Down by the river Salia.

    She had a big knife three feet long,
    Weela weela wallia
    She had a big knife three feet long,
    Down by the River Salia.

    She stuck the knife in the baby's head,
    Weela weela wallia
    The more she stabbed it the more it bled
    Down by the River Salia.

Even the baby tried to sing it, though he didn’t know the words.
Driving to the factory outlet in Fall River to get our winter coats, my parents hissing at each other in the front seat, I thought of Lizzie Borden. Maybe her mother told her she smelled. I don’t know what her father said. Probably nothing. But she knew he thought she was disgusting. Her parents agreed on this at least.

She was often alone with them. She gorged on biscuits upstairs in a closet, if there were any biscuits. If there was nothing to eat, she sucked a wooden dowell dusted with sugar. She had a thirst for justice, a kind of lust—the monster.

Who lives in that house now? Is it covered in aluminum siding like those around it? 

Oh, no—now I see—it’s a bed and breakfast.

I’d never heard of Emily Dickinson. Jump-rope rhymes were all I knew of poetry. The subject of the poem, the author of the murder. Lizzie Borden had no privacy, no rag or paper of her own. She bled and it was a mess. She heard voices and couldn’t get them down.
My sister got the blue coat, I got the red: wide wale corduroy. For a while I was confused about the wale and the whales, Fall River and New Bedford, the garment factories and Melville’s ship, and corduroy itself, but now I know: corduroy is, in essence, a ridged form of velvet. You could see the trimmings on the factory floor. I took a scrap of my sister’s blue.


My international playboy, my daughter, reminds me that she needs some Tampax. In my notebooks from her fourth year, I find a receipt from Bill’s Drugs in Berkeley. I bought night diapers for her, Tampax for me, condoms for me, extra strength Tylenol for me, and bobby pins for her, since she was getting too big to swallow and choke on them. I’d never bought condoms before.
When Isabel was small she sat in my lap and we looked at a book of paintings from the Met. I told her about the Holy Family, the Trinity, all that. I told her about Christ, but I didn't say he was her savior.

We turned to other nativities. She was fascinated by the baby in every picture.

“Look, Mama, now she's in her crib.” “And now she's having milk.” “Now the angels see her.”

My daughter thought the main character was a girl. 
Then it was Holy Week. On the way home from Our Lady of Lourdes I saw that someone had discarded sheaves of palms on the side of the road. Fr. Seamus Genovese had blessed the palms.

“Oh, what a shame,” I said, picking them up.

Isabel asked, “Mom, what is ‘shame’?”

Had I somehow raised a child who didn’t know what shame was?
One Sunday a few years later, we watched a documentary about Pearl Harbor. Isabel started to ask me a question and I knew intuitively what it would be.

“Mom, are there rules in war?”

My heart broke. Someday she’d have to learn about war, rape, death. But this was not that day.

“It’s Sunday night,” I said, turning the VCR off. “Time to get ready for bed.”

“But it’s not night yet,” she said, and she was right. So we discussed all the words for what it really was: dusk, twilight, sunset, evening.
At fifteen she was five inches taller than me. One night she helped clean up after dinner, handing me the plates and looking down at me in our tiny kitchen. She sat on the couch and we talked about whether or not she could get her nose pierced.

She asked if she could do this for her sixteenth birthday; I told her to research it and make a case for it and let me think about it for a few days.

The next day I stopped at Hee Sook’s restaurant. The hostess had a nose piercing. “It’s hard to keep clean.” Isabel was disappointed when I told her that I wanted her to wait three months to see if she still wanted the piercing; she wished she had talked to me earlier about this—so the three-month waiting period would have been over by her birthday, October 5th. I started washing dishes. She picked up her homework.

Five minutes later, as I turned to wipe the counter, she looked up at me, stricken.

"What's wrong?" I said.

Tears were running down her face. "It's so sad," she said.

"What? That I won't let you get your nose pierced right away?"

I went over to sit with her on the couch and gave her a hug.

"No," she said, and held up her book. She was reading Plato's apology for Socrates.

I asked her to read some of it aloud to me. She wiped her tears and read the part about Socrates, wisdom, god and the gods, and then she lost it.

"They killed him anyway," she sobbed, shaking her head.
Last week we were rolling around, wrestling and laughing. When we finished wrestling, we sprawled on the rug, and I felt something in my hair—her bobby pin had migrated.
I want to write a book for her about a woman wearing rags between her legs while stitching haberdashery. Soaked through while sewing lapels and buttonholes. A faint fingerprint of blood on the peach-colored lining of a suit. No poems sewn into that lining. No English. But we were there.