Thursday, April 21, 2016

"This is Hard"

    I am re-reading C. D. Wright's ONE BIG SELF, making notes about questions I have for the author, remembering suddenly that she's not here to answer them.

My students and I look at the portraits Deborah Luster took in the prisons of Louisiana, and we read C. D.'s poem "Black is the Color" and her refrain, the words written to acknowledge the unspeakable: "This is hard." I look up all the Latin in the book and it turns out I know it already. I look up "cicatrix" and "undine." And I wonder, reading the phrase "dirty chi," did the poet know that "chi" is not just from the Chinese but from the Igbo? In the African language that slaves were still speaking in the South in 1755, "chi" means "God."

I bet she knew.

Someone told me that I was mentioned in C. D.'s last book. Yes, there it is. (The essay is excerpted online in a blog . . . and now I have the book.)

Though I did not know her well, C. D. was kind to me, as she was kind to many others. Made me feel real. Right to the end. And beyond.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Like Dynamite


For Valentine's Day, a poem that appeared in my chapbook Hesitation Kit in 2007. I didn't include it in The Public Gardens; I don't remember why. But it's going into the "Feminine" section of my new manuscript. If you haven't read Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel, Lolly Willowes, check it out. I think it's right up there with Alice Childress's A Short Walk as one of the best books about girlhood and womanhood (and colonialism, too, for that matter) that I've ever read.

                A Parakeet

Titus, her father, had made a voyage to the Indies, and brought back with him a green parrowkeet, the first of its kind to be seen in Dorset.

        – Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes                         

The children throw things at you.

You have nowhere to go.

You’re like something to be melted down

And stuck with a wick while talking.

When it’s gloomy outside they sit in front of you

As if you were a fire.

It’s gloomy inside, too.

You don’t mean to be entertaining,

Gesticulating with one nervous but adamant claw,

Waving the alternate cut wing for emphasis

Articulate as the sleeve of a revivalist’s robe

(That is, inarticulate)

As she measures a storefront she once owned or plans to own,

“God willing.”

For they have taught you to say

“God willing.”

Of course there is no reason for birds to talk

Or to be as colorful as lollipops.

Perhaps like women they “know they are dynamite,

And long for the concussion

That may justify them.”        


Collages: Linda Norton, from WPA/FSA photos in the public domain (Library of Congress)

Sunday, November 29, 2015


November 29, 1915-May 31, 1967


Strayhorn was definitely trying to do a classical thing with a jazzy touch. “Bach liked to do it, Lou. Try it. You’ll like it, too.”

That was the day he selected the clothes his mother would be buried in. His satin doll. “Now,” he said, “I don’t have to worry.”

Johnny Mercer was brought in to replace Strayhorn’s Oedipal lyrics. Strayhorn’s original lyrics to “Satin Doll” are not known to have survived.

Lena called every night: “Hello purple people. Talk to me, honey. What are we thinking about?”

“We’re thinking about flavoring milk with ashes.”


To make an impression on Ellington, Strayhorn wrote “Chelsea Bridge.” The musicians at that session were very uncomfortable faking their way across “Chelsea Bridge.”

Actually, by then he was beyond making an impression.

That was after he went to Rosemary Clooney’s house to rehearse with her because her pregnancy was difficult and she couldn’t travel. He sat at the foot of her bed as they made the recording and when they were finished he asked her, “Did you like your part?” Like something God might ask you at the end of your gig.

“Blood Count” he wrote at the end, when he was reduced to pouring booze into a tube directly into his stomach under his dinner jacket. There were roses all over the piano, very Duchess-of-Windsor. Or was that “Chelsea Bridge”?

No. There were no roses then. When he played “Blood Count” it was in a darkened room, and the piano was bare except for moonlight mammographed across its surface.

I fell asleep reading David Hajdu’s biography of Billy Strayhorn, thinking: I must find and listen to that piece of music Strayhorn wrote on a Shakespearean theme, the one with the beautiful title.

And then I dreamed that I’d camped out in the wilderness, on a moor near the ocean. I’d brought my TV. I’d plugged it in with a long cord, which unfurled behind me as I walked across the moor. 

Under the open moonless sky, far from buildings or people, I sat and watched cartoons, and when I got up to hike back to town as the sun went down, I left the TV on, a box of light on a slab of rock, the only light that night.

                     Three poems from THE PUBLIC GARDENS: POEMS AND HISTORY

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Dark White


The Fore River Bridge, WPA, 1936.

    Flying out of Boston after a conference in Cambridge. Theory theory theory, and Eve talking about spanking. Also 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 the air was so thick with the smell of Ivory Soap, I'd gag. "That's not pollution," Ma would scoff. "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 whether this or that Sicilian was dark, fair, swarthy, yellow, whatever; a place to indicate the tone of the complexion of each immigrant (a category that 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 any identifying marks on the face of the Italians from the South; an unusual number of men had scars on their faces. Anarchists had blown up Salutation Street in the North End and many other targets, and all Italians were suspect. Most of the Sicilians on the ship are deemed dark white, but there must have been an argument on board about my mother's mother; "fair" is noted, then crossed out.

There is 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

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

Kerry girl, Boston Public Gardens

For Denise Leto and Alice Lyons


The General Dynamics shipyard mentioned above is what you see in the banner image for this blog. This and other images here come from the Library of Congress archives. They are in the pubic domain and belong to us.

Lament for the Dead

 I was invited to contribute to a project called "Lament for the Dead,"  an acknowledgement of every person killed in a police shooting in the U. S. this summer, and of every police officer killed in the line of duty. Poets are assigned a name and asked to write something within a day of the death. Here is my meditation on a name, along with a link to a recitation of the Surah As-shams.

              Circumference Without Relief

"The deceased has been identified as Asshams Pharoah Manley, 30,
 of Forestville, Md., police said.”- August 14, 2015

This Surah, a chapter of the Quran, is named for “ash-shams,” which means “it opens.”

Its theme is to distinguish the good from the evil and to warn the people.

By the sun and its brightness

And by the moon when it follows it.

And by the day when it brightens it . . .

(When the most wretched of them got up)


Ptah (Hephestus) / Ra (Helios/Apollo) / Shu (Aelos) / Geb (Gaia)

? (Demeter) / Osiris (Hades) / Set (Ares) / Horus (Zeus) /

Thoth (Hermes) / Ma’at

These legendary Gods are followed by semi-divine rulers—

Pharoah to Slave to Pharoah to Slave—

Benin to North Carolina to Maryland—


          My mother was named Melinda Manley, the slave of Governor Manley of North Carolina, and my father was named Arnold Foreman, slave of Bob and John Foreman, two young masters. . . I didn’t never stay with my mammy [during] slavery. 
          - BETTY CHESSIER, enslaved in North Carolina

          She never got to keep them. When her fourth baby was born and was about two months old she just [knew] she would have to give it up and one day she said, “I just decided I’m not going to let old Master sell this baby; he just ain’t going to do it.” She got up and give it something out of a bottle and purty soon it was dead. ‘Course didn’t nobody tell on her or he’d of beat her nearly to death.   
          - LOU SMITH, enslaved in South Carolina and Arkansas

          I have a faint recollection of my grandparents. My grandfather was sold to a man in South Carolina, to work in the rice field. Grandmother drowned herself in the river when she heard that grand-pap was going away. I was told that grandpap was sold because he got religious and prayed that God would set him and grandma free.   
          - MARY JAMES, enslaved in Virginia


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

"Home and Away" / art and writing

As part of "Home and Away," my collaboration with the Peralta Hacienda Historical Museum in Oakland, I have been writing and making art about incarceration, history, and our community. Stay tuned for more images from the exhibit and from our community workshops.

Did you know that there are Yelp reviews 

of California's prisons and jails? 

Here are some excerpts.


    One Star

Not exactly sure how to rate a prison. I am not an inmate.

I was visiting a long-time friend who is serving a life sentence.

Dress code: no yoga pants, underwire bras, no sleeveless shirts or cleavage, no open-toe shoes. 

Do not wear orange, green, colors of inmates’ and guards’ uniforms.

There are vending machines. You can even take a picture with inmate.

The inmate cannot touch money so please be advised.

We had a great visit. I’ll definitely go back.

Can’t EVEN believe there are jail Yelp reviews!!!!

Even a moron can predict what people are gonna say!!!!

Are there any 5 stars jails in existence????



I have an auntie that has spent almost 16 years in this place to date LOL

Have been writing her and she calls me from time to time thru out her time

There is always a lock down in there for the smallest thing

We have been cut off of some phone calls bc of whatever going on

From what I know about the place, it's just a big joke!

There are more addicts in there then on the streets bc drugs are constantly brought in by guards

A lot of them are jeopardizing their job constantly bc they get romantically involved with inmates

The place is a big cess pool of constant drama!

The place needs a revamp


In the cell there was myself, three Mexican girls who got lost leaving Modesto (???), a couple of black girls, and a couple of white girls.

A white girl asked to get switched to another cell because of the "shenanigans."

"I'm with all these shenanigans! Can you put me with only White people?”


She then took all of the toilet paper to make a blanket for herself.

What fun, peeling layers from her every time I needed to pee . . .



Added one star for the arts and crafts program. I like macaroni pictures. What of it?


Protective custody inmates are mainly gang drop outs, chomo's (child molesters/sex crimes), celebrities, people with high profile cases and LGBT status

These inmates wear red jail clothing

LGBT and sex crimes are housed with each other. People with mental disabilities and disorders unfortunately end up here too.

These people get the shit end of the stick I'd say.

I have been to Santa Rita more than three times and I have always witnessed deputies mocking and disrespecting mental individuals on several occasions.

Mental inmates that are violent wear a distinctive jail suit consisting of green and white stripes and are always shackled with handcuffs and waist restraints.

Whether your stay is overnight or extended, this place is for no person in their right mind.

Leaving can be bittersweet because you will find yourself making at least an acquaintance or two just by having them teach you the ropes.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Language, Like" on view at the Dock in County Leitrim, Ireland, until the end of October 2014

Beautiful time in Ireland these last few weeks installing my series "Dark White" with curator Alice Lyons, artist Helen Horgan, and all the staff at the Dock. Thank you to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin for supporting my contribution to this exhibit.