Sunday, February 25, 2018


I read some of this work at Counterpath in Denver last night—excerpts from the forthcoming book, Wite-Out.

She is in the dark,
sewing, stringing notes together
with invisible thread.
That’s a feminine accomplishment:
a feat of memory, a managed
repletion or resplendence.
                          RAE ARMANTROUT, from “Getting Warm”

                So will my page be colored that I write?
               Being me, it will not be white.  
Down on Lakeshore Avenue on Saturday in bright sunshine. African guys in robes and turbans hang out at Peets every morning. They’re very dark and look like royalty in those clothes. Like the three kings visiting the infant Jesus. On Saturday, they decided to sit in the pocket park next to the drugstore and play chess. A light-skinned African-American man walked past and peeked in at their dark faces. “Hey, need a little light in there?” They all laughed. Deep, booming laughter.
The life in the street here—the daily daily—
“Her whole body panging and pinging,” writes Zora Neale Hurston. “A hippy undulation below the waist that is a sheaf of promises tied with unconscious power. She is acting out, ‘I’m a darned sweet woman and you know it.’”
Reading while drinking, writing in the margins— notch-bracket-underline
“These little plays by strolling players are acted out daily in a dozen streets in a thousand cities, and no one ever mistakes the meaning.”
Notch, notch, notch.
Feeling out of touch with Isabel now that she’s away at college, I called in the middle of the day. She picked up on the first ring. She said, "I was just thinking about you." I said, "What were you thinking?" She said, "Mamamamamamamama."
Went to meet Marcus at the BBQ place where he works (it’s called Perdition). The dishwasher greeted me with a smile and told a waiter, “That’s Marcus’s mom.”
I am?

“He’s in the freezer,” said the waiter, and turned to walk me to the back.

“Oh, I know where it is,” I said, and went down the corridor and opened the door of the meat locker. 

He was in there with all the carcasses. "Look," he says, showing me a cow skull. "I'm gonna dry it till all the meat falls off and then I'm gonna paint it."

“Come out, it’s so cold. Let’s eat.”

We went next door and talked about this week in policing. He’s a target everywhere. No place is safe, not even the second-hand junk store. “So we're in the recycle place in Oakland and there's this little kid with a big head and he's going crazy, digging through all the bins, all the junk, and finally he finds it, like he always knew it would be there: a little plastic toy gun. And I'm just sitting there minding my own business, pretty much the only man in the whole place, and this kid comes over and points the gun in my face and shoots me."

I drove him home, past the crumbling wall near West Oakland BART where he tagged last week. His name, JOOS, in enormous chalky blue letters.

“Why is that your tag?”

“You know—JOOS. Like O. J.”

He looked at me, puzzled--how could I not know?

“Like O.J. Simpson?”


Of course. Why didn’t I think of that? 

Because I’m white.

I was pregnant, sitting in the bar at the Tabard in Washington, when O. J. led the police on the Bronco chase in LA. I didn't understand what the big deal was.

Marcus was five when Simpson became an African American hero.

Now I tell him about O. J. in the Hertz commercials. Back when O. J. was lighter. He doesn’t know about that part of Simpson’s life. 

When I was first assigned to his case six years ago, I took him to dinner. We parked near Pixar. Everyone had gone home for the weekend. The fence surrounding the office buildings was covered with a thousand big pink roses, so perfect and uniform that they looked like something out of a Disney movie. I reached up to pick a rose and Marcus deftly took my hand before I had a chance to pluck anything. He stepped up his pace, pulling me along toward the restaurant.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “There are so many of them.”
“I’m on probation,” he said. “You pick that and I’m the one they’ll arrest.” He pointed to the police car at the corner. I hadn’t noticed it.
In the car a few years ago, on the way home from a court date, he read me a poem he wrote: “Since I was nine / I have been an immense black man / to everyone I see.”
In New York for a reading of Pressed Wafer authors. Went up to 125th and bought a black slip at H&M and had an over-priced lunch at a place where the eggs tasted like disinfectant. Then on to the Schomburg where, years ago, I worked on the Marcus Garvey papers. I visited an exhibit of WPA photos and eavesdropped. I left as it was getting dark. I’d heard that Harlem had become gentrified and white, but I saw very few white people up there. The trees were bare and I had all the haunting feelings about architecture and oncoming winter that I had when I lived here. Feelings I don’t have in California.

I stopped at Goodwill and found a snow globe of the Statue of Liberty with her head knocked off. I was “mesmotized,” as my mother would say, shaking the thing and watching the head swirl around. But I didn’t have time to wait in line to buy it. On the way to the subway, on a block of brownstones where I was the only soul in the street, a black cat crossed my path. I thought, for me, in Harlem, that might augur good luck.
In my old notebooks from so long ago, I find perhaps my favorite intimate interracial exchange in literature (not that there are so many of them, really)—an argument—the Black character calling out her white lover:

Ida: “You are just a fucked up group of people!"

Vivaldo: "I am just a fucked up group of people!”

Sounds like something--both what she says, and what he says--that I would say in a fight.

Steve stopped by to say hello to Isabel. He noticed a quote from Bob Kaufman taped up over my desk.

“'Hoping the beat is really the truth.' I remember that you used it as an epigraph to your Strayhorn poems in Shuffle Boil,” he said.

“Yeah, I’ve had that Post-It for a long time, since 2001. Lost so much, but I kept that.”

“Remember Julian from that dinner with Fred? He knows a lot about Kaufman. You should talk to him.”
Baldwin: “It was only when her purity ended that her life could begin.”

Me: The dream of a male protector outlives all men.
What about your current self would most surprise the girl you once were?

Pretty much everything.
Painting at my desk. Scratching away at the surface, trying to complicate it. Then I cut, pasted, and painted late into the night, forgetting, for hours on end, to take a sip—so focused that I accidentally dipped my brush in wine.

Lots of paintings must have some wine in them. 
At the second-hand bookstore on Piedmont Ave:

“Do you have any books by bell hooks?”


“bell hooks.”

“Who’s she?”

“Black. Feminist. Buddhist. Women’s studies.”

“Oh she could be anywhere. People beyond category are dispersed.”

He gestures to the shelves and goes back to texting.

I walk down the block and wander into another store. I don’t touch anything because I don’t want to want anything. I just look and listen.

Is this a hand-painted tablecloth?” a customer asks.

“I don’t know,” says the girl at the cash register. “But it’s from India, where people do all kinds of outrageous things by hand.”
Terrible headache. I go to the gym anyway. Roxanne, my friend the evangelist, stops to proselytize me while I’m showering. Her eyes glitter as she talks about Christ’s suffering on the Cross. “Pastor says it was even worse than it was portrayed in 'The Passion of Christ,'” she says happily.

I go into the sauna and close my eyes. The steam rises. I can't see anyone. I don't want to see anyone. On the benches around me four women are talking and I think I hear one of them say, in the midst of a rapid-fire burst of talk: "When I was in Dachau." 


Then I realize they’re speaking Chinese.

Putting on my makeup, my foundation at the counter at the gym, it looks like I’m rubbing whiteface on my cheeks and forehead.

Am I having a migraine? I’m hearing voices.

“Do you ever have ‘lyric episodes’?”

“Like small strokes? Yes, if I’m lucky.”
More “riots” this week, here in Oakland and everywhere. I was going to meet Marcus near City Hall and eat at Xolo last night, but I can’t afford another smashed car window this month.

So I picked him up on West Street and we drove around looking for demonstrators and police in downtown Oakland. Then, before things really got going, we went to my place and made spaghetti and listened to the helicopters hovering. I put flowers in vases. He sprinkled sugar in the water to make the flowers last longer. Something I never do. "Thank you."

I microwaved the bread pudding I made last week. Then we sat on the couch with my computer and looked at Yelp review of jails and prisons and click click click we visited web sites of various correctional facilities (taking special note of the names and weird portraits of wardens). Next he showed me his friend's funny nude pictures on FB (oh no). Time to say goodnight.

Outside, on the front steps, we looked up at the helicopters that circle every time something happens in Oakland. Marcus took out his green laser beam and pointed at the stars. 

When I drove him back downtown we talked about looting. I hope he won’t do it again, now that he’s older. I don’t want him to get hurt.

When I dropped him at his place he leaned into my window to kiss me.

“Bye! Look for me later on the news!”

I laughed.

“Go play a video game.”

He waved and smiled as he walked away. 

“I love you,” he called out. 

I waited for him to close the door before I drove home through streets filled with police cars and barriers.

At one point, for instance, I drove in the company of a black family for a good half an hour. They waved repeatedly to show that I already had a place in their hearts as a friend of the family, as it were, and when they parted from me in a broad curve at the Hurleyville exit—the children pulling clownish faces out of the rearview window—I felt deserted and desolate for a time.  - W. G. SEBALD, The Emigrants

Driving around Lake Merritt last Sunday I almost rear-ended the car in front of me when it stopped short at a light. I didn’t beep the horn or anything, I wasn’t mad; I was just grateful that I’d been paying attention. And I was curious. I pulled up alongside the car to get a better look.

In the front seat was an old Chinese man and in the back was a woman I took to be his wife. There were quince branches on the dashboard, branches pressed up against the glass of the windows, branches from floor to ceiling, branches all around their faces. The car was a battered grey sedan held together with duct tape, like my car.

These two old people were entirely surrounded by spiny branches but they weren’t shielding their eyes with their hands or driving carefully. It was as if only I could see the danger they were in.
Rae read my book, said “Trinity” reminded her of Plath. Huh, I never thought of that. In my twenties, in Cambridge, everyone talked about Plath and Sexton. Seemed like you’d have to kill yourself if you were a female poet. And what about their poor children?

Plath bit Ted Hughes the night they met—drew blood! I’ve gotten pretty crazy around some men, but I’ve never bitten any of them.
Working on my project about migration and incarceration in East Oakland. Doing interviews, making art with whoever comes in, and we made a little library in the community center. Angela Davis’s books, Ruthie Gilmore’s, Jarvis Jay Masters, and editions of Malcolm X for little kids, teenagers, and adults.

After our interview there last week, Beverly, about seventy-five years old and still beautiful in a picture hat and ballet slippers, sat with me on the porch talking about the things she wouldn’t tell on tape. Remembered the dirty blues she liked when she was growing up in Texas. Things she did then that she wouldn’t do now.

She mentioned a guy who came on to her in Home Depot years ago. He wanted to fix her sink, her electricity, her cabinets . . . It sounded like a poem, like the blues.

I was distracted and wasn’t sure I was getting her meaning.

"Wait, was this guy white?"

She stared at me hard. "Well, he was a lot whiter than you are!"
Beverly tells the kids who come to my workshops that they should call me “Miss Linda” out of respect. I told them they could call me "Linda," but she wants to set a tone (they call her "Miss Beverly").

Jim, the nice old white donor and volunteer who’s come to fix the porch, overhears this and looks puzzled. The kids call him Jim, or nothing at all. 

He asks her, “Does that mean you want them to call me ‘Mr. Jim’?” 

Is it my imagination, or does he suddenly sound like his people came from Tennessee?

She says, “No. Oh, no no no no no no no.”

“Why not?”

“Because of--history.”

He looks puzzled. Beverly laughs and looks at me. “You wanna tell him?”

No, thanks. I don’t want to tell Jim he looks like master. Jim is a really nice man.

The helado cart arrived in front of the park and a crowd gathered. Joss called me over to introduce me to some people, and I met a new baby named Nebulous. They handed her to me. 

It was fabulous.
In Portland, sitting in the Reed College archives where Isabel is working this summer, reading Philip Whalen's senior thesis—Calendar, a selection of poems. "Sun in the bamboos / Beside the lake / The ducks behaving / Scandalously" (from "The Great Instauration").

I work in a similar place—a research institute within an archive in a research library—where I can read things like this—rare things, like the pamphlet from Baraka's talk in Boston in the 1970s—about why Blacks and working-class Irish Americans should make common cause with each other.
My Airbnb host in Portland, a nice retired fellow, just injured his leg in a heavy metal band drumming accident in the basement.

On my walk to Powell’s today I heard a man playing bagpipes in his house. The sound was very faint. Filtered through a screen and leaves. Bought another volume of Ferrante. Everyone is reading her or Knausgaard these days. 

So many strip clubs in this town. Great bread and lots of beer. So many poor white people living on the street.

I tried to help Isabel set up her new apartment, arranging spices and cereal and things. I found a lamp in the street and we put it on her desk. Then I concentrated on window locks, security, and lights so she won’t be raped. At the same time, I tried to remind her to do what she wants, don’t be afraid, etc. It’s the kind of conversation I’ve been having with myself for forty years. Depressing.

Finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Dodie’s The Buddhist. Why do I always tell it slant? Why can’t I just put my sex life out there the way they do? I bought a red notebook and started writing furiously about sex with Julian. Love, hate, eros, ludos—liner notes for a soundtrack of that romance. The way it was. I poured it all out. And now I realize that I lost the fucking notebook on the way home from Portland. I’m feeling like a middle-aged and vulnerable Harriet the Spy, because, most of all, my notebooks tell the truth about me, even when—especially when—I write most honestly about other people.

I texted Isabel to tell her that I was back in Oakland.

Me: And I think I lost my red notebook.
     Isabel: Oh no! Any idea where it got lost?
Me: Your room? If you find it, burn it. LOL
     Isabel: Heh heh...
Me: Please don’t read it if you find it.
Me: Just tuck it into Philip Whalen's thesis in the Reed archives
Me: So someone finds it later and says "WTF?"
     Isabel: A little bit of parent Reediana
     Isabel: Highly classified
Me: Please, please, please, if you find it
Me: Tag it “hella Oakland” before you archive it.

At PDX heading back to Oakland, hanging around in the bookstore, I realized I could no longer avoid My Struggle. So I bought it.

But somehow I lost that, too, before I got home.

In My Girlish Days
It took the 8-year-old female [shark] 21 hours to eat the 5-year-old male inside a tank at the aquarium. According to video of the consumption, the female shark started with the male's head and slowly went about consuming the rest of his body. This act of shark cannibalism likely was the result of the sharks bumping into one another. "Sharks have their own territories," an aquarium official told Reuters. “Sometimes, when they bump into each other, they bite out of astonishment."

Twenty-one hours?

I would have made a meal of him

in the time it takes to listen

to every song on Sinatra’s

“In the Wee Small Hours”

(“the greatest break-up album of all time”).

But then I’d spend the rest of my life

feeling terrible about it.

“I’m sorry, dear—

you astonished me,

so I ate you.”

I eat men like air

or something.


On your bicycle, skateboard, or motorcycle / Or in the hoopty that makes poor people pity me / And at the bakery with hairnets and German chocolate cupcakes / Where we met Ebony / who fell in love with her mother in a hot tub

Or on the paternity ward / In a gingham shirt I never saw again / You laughed when I insulted a nun / Because of something she’d never done

You, harangued by a beauty on the phone / You, suffering in a shower stall / It is safer in a meat locker / Or at that wall near Marcus Books / Another wall you improved / “Emancipated from care” 

With for or against / People need to listen / People need to speak / Or dress up / Like the police / Impersonating order / Blowing things up on Independence Day / Burning your hand / “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” 

This balm is made of Vaseline / This one you made of spit and samples from the paint store where you used to work / Black white and a little blue / makes a color you call JOOS