Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Second Annual Oakland Book Festival
May 22, 2016
Oakland City Hall

This year the theme is labor, and I'll be making a presentation at 11:00 with filmmaker Nora Sweeney and moderator Steve Dickison. I'll be talking about Depression and WWII era photographs of the FSA/OWI, now in the public domain at the Library of Congress, and my use of documentary (including WPA oral histories of former slaves) in writing and collages. Come hear about "killed" negatives and the "telepathy of archives" and see "Sweet Oranges," Nora Sweeney's beautiful and understated documentary about workers in an orange grove in Southern California.

Who are you who will read these words and study these photographs, and through what cause, by what chance and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it.

A few events this week, including the wonderful Oakland Book Festival on Sunday, May 22, at Oakland City Hall.

I'll post a link to the Festival program later today.

  Tomorrow (Thursday, May 19) I'll be reading at 6:30PM at Alley Cat Books in the Mission in San Francisco to celebrate the publication of a new issue of FOURTEEN HILLS magazine. Go to the link to see more about the magazine and the other readers. Editor in Chief Esther Patterson and her staff were kind enough to take three pieces from my next book, Wite-Out, for publication in this issue; re-posting one of them here. 


              DOLL VALUES

       Always following disaster. Even when I was a kid. Long stories, believe me. Several steps behind damage. When a mother says keep your eyes on them and she goes on dumping potatoes in the water she probably doesn’t know you will go on watching them for the rest of your life. As if anything could make you stop. 

                    - EILEEN MYLES


Sitting in Café Mogador, waiting for Isabel and Eileen, I take out my newspaper.


There were too many people on the pleasure boat that night on the Long Island Sound.

The little girl had decorated her room with butterflies and elephants so there were butterflies and elephants on her coffin.


Here’s what they do with the rotting carcasses of horses: a truck picks them up, maggots and all. “They go into ladies’ cosmetics,” says the man who shovels the mess into a truck. “Lotions and creams.” Grease and horror redeemed, churned into beauty butter.


This week in death: Don Cornelius, Mike Kelley, Dorothea Tanning, Wisława Szymborska. And that little girl and the boy on the boat.

The kids were watching Fourth of July fireworks on a boat named the Candy 1. There is no Candy 2.

I suddenly realize that I don’t really believe that women die, so they can’t escape suffering.


Isabel arrives wearing a plaid polyester skirt, not what she was wearing when she left the house in Brooklyn this morning. She looks sheepish and beautiful and sweaty, and she smells like the thrift store. The skirt is too big for her so she’s rolled it at the waist.

She keeps coming home from the Goodwill with clothes that might have been my clothes in the 1980s. One day she brought home a crop top that looked just like what I wore at my brother’s deathbed.

Eileen comes and locks her bike with a heavy chain. It takes a long time, the chain rattling like something in a dungeon. On her way to our table she says hi to someone.

“Do you know Fred Tuten?” she asks. “That’s Fred Tuten.”

A name that sounds like a toy company.

She’s so handsome. Her teeth. And she sounds like everyone I grew up with. The way I still sound when I read aloud to children.

The first time I met Eileen, seventeen years ago, in a gallery, I was newly pregnant with Isabel. I was kneeling to get something out of my bag and I looked up and Susan introduced us. “Have you met Eileen? Linda’s from Boston too.”

I remember the blue rayon dress I was wearing that night. It cost $45.00 at Street Life on Broadway. A lot of money for me. It was shorter than the dresses I usually wore. It made me feel so pretty. I wore it in Italy with my husband early in my pregnancy.

Annunciations, nativities, last suppers and crucifixions, depositions, resurrections, assumptions and ascensions. A few Magdalenes. And, on St. Joseph’s Day, the Pietà.

I looked at a hundred Madonnas in that dress. I became a Madonna in that dress.

By the eighth week, it was too tight for me. Later, in California, after I lost so much weight, I took it out of storage. It had a low neckline that I could pull down when I needed to nurse.


Joey was a snob. You couldn’t eat candy or fried food in front of him without being criticized. In the deep polyester era he wore only cotton, wool, or cashmere; no blends. Not even when he worked as a barback at Studio 54.

One night we arranged to meet down here to go to the Public. I arrived eating Starbursts two at a time. “How can you eat those?” he said. “It’s like eating a candle or something!”

In all the old pictures he has positioned himself next to me and I’m ignoring him. He used to look up to me. Now he was ashamed of me.

I gave the rest of my candy to a homeless man lounging in front of Cooper Union, making a little show of my tenderness. Joey just kept walking. I had to run to catch up with him.

It was always like that with him now—like I might never see him again. And then one day I never saw him again.


It’s the longest day of the year or feels like it. Why do we get this much time? The light angles into the cavern of the street, it’s in their eyes and they can’t see me. I watch them while they eat. My writer. My daughter. “My tiny, tiny my-ness.”

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 "soul."

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)