Every month it seems there is another flashpoint of tensions between police and black communities in cities around the United States.
From Ferguson to Baltimore, our country seems ready to tear at the seams from a volatile combination of racial prejudice, police militarism, and the systemic poverty and disenfranchisement black people feel in America today.
It is impossible to ignore this critical issue of our day – we ignore it at our peril – even in a forum such as this.
In that light, I asked poet Sheree Mack if I could feature one of her poems for this final week of National Poetry Month. I was thinking we’d choose one from her remarkable new book, Laventille, which I’ve just started reading.
But Sheree asked if I’d rather have a new poem, one where she is trying “to get my head around the issue of race in America now with #BlackLivesMatter and how things haven’t changed much since lynching was another arm of the ‘law’.”
When she sent me, “Called Witness,” I jumped at the chance to share it, with its unflinching mixture of found texts (from a source cited below) and its paraphrase of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in line 8.
Sheree Mack was born in 1971 in Bradford, England, to a Trinidadian father and a “Geordie” mother of Ghanaian and Bajan ancestry. She worked as a teacher for several years before studying for a PhD on black British women poets.
Sheree now dedicates her life to “fostering creativity in everyone’s life” working with communities of women and young writers, and currently lives in Tynemouth. She is the author of two collections, Family Album (Flambard Press, 2011) and Laventille (Smokestack Books, 2015).
I met Sheree Mack through the group “52,” which I participated in last year. Members of “52” wrote poems each week to prompts supplied by the group’s founder, Jo Bell, and commented upon each other’s work in a closed group on Facebook. (See my blog post on the subject here.)
Sheree’s poetry rose to the surface in my mind for its clarity, craft, and complexity of vision. Mack’s poems “lament, rage and mourn,” as the publisher says about her latest book. “But they also offer a song of healing, a celebration of survival, a glimmer of the flames that burn in the hearts of a people still living in slavery’s dark shadow. “
Her perceptive comments on a number of poems (mine and others) flagged her as one of those people you want to spend time with, even if the only opportunity is through the auspices of a virtual poetry workshop.
It was only later that I realized she was also the subject of my friend Alastair Cook’s stunning collodion portrait of a striking woman with captivating eyes, that I’d seen as part of his McArthur’s Store exhibition. There is something haunting about this portrait, as is the case of much of Alastair’s work in the medium.
The image is timeless or time-bound or both simultaneously. It could just as easily be a photograph of someone from Trinidad and Tobago at the time of the 1970 student uprisings in Laventille (the subject of her book) or an image from an even earlier era.
In short, the photo is a bit like Sheree Mack’s poetry: a bit timeless, a bit time-bound, but always unflinching and intriguing.
Here is Sheree Mack’s poem, “Called Witness”:
The exhibition opened in a small New York gallery.
The crowds came, self-righteous and proud.
Assembled and displayed were sixty photographs,
collected from family albums, attic trunks, flea markets.
Small, black-and-white postcards,
not more than a few inches long and wide,
depicting African-American men in Jim Crow
South; black bodies swinging from poplar trees.
Long lines stood for hours on the wintry
sidewalk, waiting for their view.
Once inside, bodies overwhelmed the intimate space.
Images laid flat on display tables or assembled
in tight groupings tacked to light-coloured walls.
Tattered, faded and worn, neither retouched nor restored.
Nor framed, matted, or captioned. Instead offered
as artefacts, not fine art objects. None for sale.
Visitor huddled close, hunched over tables,
faces pushed up against the walls, they felt
the warmth and proximity of others, jostling
and angling their bodies for a better look.
Through generations, onlookers enticed to the scene
by the spectacle of mutilated, dangling bodies.
c) 2015 Sheree Mack
Used by permission of the author.
Text cited: Lynching Photographs by Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith,
University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 2007
As some of you know, my new role in my day job at EY involves helping globalize prepaid smart metering programs for municipal utilities in emerging markets.
It’s a project that started in South Africa, and I think it’s pretty cool to be exporting an innovation from the African continent rather than imposing it from outside.
Traveling to South Africa, I’ve begun to explore the literature and art of the country over the last 20 years since the end of apartheid.
Thinking about poets whose work I could share, I thought about the work of Isobel Dixon. I know Isobel chiefly through social media — I believe it was Jo Bell or the Scottish Poetry Library who first introduced me to her work.
Dixon lives in London, but was born in Umtata, South Africa, and grew up in the semi-desert region known as the Karoo. She studied in the South African winelands country of Stellenbosch (where I was with my wife Samantha in January) and in Edinburgh.
In 2000, Dixon won the Sanlam Literary Award for her then unpublished collection of poetry Weather Eye, which was subsequently published by Carapace Poets (2001). She is also the author two collections, The Tempest Prognosticator and A Fold in the Map, both published by Salt in the UK. You can read more of her work at isobeldixon.com
I love the rhythms and musicality of Isobel Dixon’s poem, “She Comes Swimming,” and the mix of history and mythology that unfolds as we read. Of the poem Dixon wrote in an email to me,
“This is a poem very close to my heart, about my beloved country, South Africa. I wrote it in my first years abroad, feeling very keenly what it means to live far from the motherland, to yearn for it – and yet to fear that time away will change you, or change others’ perceptions of you, so that you might be perceived as an outsider, in spite of all you feel and are.”
Dixon “won a scholarship to do postgraduate study in my father’s native Scotland, the realisation of a dream, but at a time when I’d rather have stayed in South Africa – the momentous year of the first democratic elections.”
Another aspect of the poem that I particularly admire is what Dixon explains as “This sense of rueful distance, of vivid longing, and an awareness of the complex histories and hybrid mythologies of my faraway homeland, all fed into a poem about my imagined journey southwards, swimming back in time and language too.”
Dixon also told me that the poem has a central place in her Salt collection, A Fold in the Map, a collection that looks at the traveler’s state of “in-betweenness,” caught between lives and countries.
“The poem flowed onto the page in something of a hypnotic state,” Dixon wrote. “One of those poems you look at the day after and think, ‘Where did that come from, and how?’ Wherever it summoned itself from, I’m glad it did.” We are too.
Here is Isobel Dixon’s poem, SHE COMES SWIMMING
She comes swimming to you, following
da Gama’s wake. The twisting Nile
won’t take her halfway far enough.
No, don’t imagine sirens – mermaid
beauty is too delicate and quick.
Nor does she have that radiance,
Botticelli’s Venus glow. No golden
goddess, she’s a southern
selkie-sister, dusky otter-girl
who breasts the cold Benguela, rides
the rough Atlantic swell, its chilly
tides, for leagues and leagues.
Her pelt is salty, soaked. Worn out,
she floats, a dark Ophelia, thinking
what it feels like just to sink
caressed by seaweed, nibbled by
a school of jewel-plated fish.
But with her chin tipped skyward
she can’t miss the Southern Cross
which now looks newly down on her,
a buttress for the roof of her familiar
hemisphere. She’s nearly there.
With wrinkled fingertips, she strokes
her rosary of ivory, bone and horn
and some black seed or stone
she can’t recall the name of,
only knows its rubbed-down feel.
And then she thanks her stars,
the ones she’s always known,
and flips herself, to find her rhythm
and her course again. On, southwards,
yes, much further south than this.
This time she’ll pay attention
to the names – not just the English,
Portuguese and Dutch, the splicings
and accretions of the years. She’ll search
for first names in that Urworld, find
her heart-land’s mother tongue.
Perhaps there’s no such language,
only touch – but that’s at least a dialect
still spoken there. She knows when she
arrives she’ll have to learn again,
so much forgotten, lost. And when
they put her to the test she fears
she’ll be found wanting, out of step.
But now what she must do is swim,
stay focused on each stroke,
until she feels the landshelf
far beneath her rise, a gentle slope
up to the rock, the Cape,
the Fairest Cape. Her Mother City
and its mountain, waiting, wrapped
in veils of cloud and smoke.
Then she must concentrate, dodge
nets and wrack, a plastic bag afloat –
a flaccid, shrunk albino ray –
until she’s close enough to touch
down on the seabed, stumble
to the beach – the glistening sand
as great a treasure as her Milky Way –
fall on her knees and plant a kiss
and her old string of beads,
her own explorer’s cross
into the cruel, fruitful earth at last.
She’s at your feet. Her heart
is beating fast. Her limbs are weak.
Make her look up. Tell her she’s home.
Don’t send her on her way again.
© 2001, Isobel Dixon
Used by permission of the author.
Last month, Samantha and I went to Israel. It was my first time in the country and my first visit to the Holy Land.
I was struck by the conundrum that is Israel. On the one hand, there is the history of the land and the history on the land.
Three of the world’s major religions were built from the earth there and sprouted and diverged as any people do, resulting in conflict and misunderstanding.
On the other hand, there is evidence of these religious factions co-existing much like that bumper sticker popular a few years ago featuring the message “Co-Exist” and a pantheon of religious symbols, as if to ask, can’t we all just “get along”?
In Old Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, for instance, ancient mosques and churches and synagogues sit cheek by jowl along the sea approach. And the market in Jerusalem is filled with Muslim and Jewish merchants distinguished perhaps only by their working hours and some specific merchandise.
Concurrent with this trip, Samantha asked me to write a poem to serve as the peace prayer at her daughter, Erica’s Bat Mitzvah, which happens to be this weekend. I was honored that not only Samantha, but my stepdaughter, too, wanted me to participate in her special day.
I’d been thinking about the subject on my first days in Israel, much of which was spent on my own as Samantha was in a conference.
But it wasn’t until our last day, in Jerusalem, when a tour guide we’d hired read a poem of Yehuda Amichai’s called “An Arab Shepherd is Searching for His Goat on Mt. Zion,” as we stood on a hill under the Moses Montefiore windmill overlooking Mt. Zion, that a poem started to come to me.
(Amichai is significant, too, because I gave Erica’s brother Max a book of Amichai’s poetry for his Bar Mitzvah a few years ago.)
Here is my poem “Peace On Mt. Zion,” which I dedicate to Erica and will read at her ceremony:
PEACE ON MT. ZION
(for Erica, on her Bat Mitzvah)
Peace is such an abstract word,
made concrete by the story
of an Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
told by a guide overlooking
Sultan’s Pool, outside the old city
of Jerusalem, from Amichai’s poem
about searching for a goat
and a child on Mt. Zion.
Their “temporary failure”
strikes me first, a lasting impression
lingering over the ramparts of the old city
–cradle and shelter of all origins.
So much begins searching
for a goat and a child on a mountain—
new religions, sacrifices, whole
cloths to cover the void,
until the child is found and the goat,
hiding together among the bushes.
The father and the shepherd
cry together and laugh,
and for a moment, all is quiet,
except for their voices,
which you can still hear
echoing over centuries of stone.
–Scott Edward Anderson
I’ve known David Simpson for a dozen years, probably more. We were introduced by another writer in Philadelphia and became fast friends, sharing poems with each other, giving readings together on stages and coffee houses.
Dave was funny, direct, and touching in ways that few other poets were in those days. I mean without being solipsistic or confessional or glib or “clever.”
His work reminded me more of Gerald Stern, David Ignatow, or Frank O’Hara than that of any of his contemporaries. I admired a certain casual freedom he offered in his work.
When Dave, who along with his twin brother, poet Dan Simpson, is blind, contracted ALS recently, it seemed unfair. Here was this most gentle soul, funny and sometimes acerbic, always caring for others, stricken by a crippling and debilitating disease.
Dave and I both agonized over our collections of poetry – for years — and the length of time it took us to compile and find a publisher. Both outsiders in the “poetry biz” world, we had time to refine our collections, sharing poems and encouraging each other – even competing with and inspiring each other.
With the publication of his book, The Way Love Comes to Me, just a few months after my Fallow Field, I was ready to celebrate with Dave. It had been a few years since we’d seen each other, as life changes, moves, and other circumstances would have it. So when Dave read at NYU this past winter, I leapt at the chance to go see him, congratulate him, and hear him read again.
I wasn’t disappointed. Even though I could see he was suffering and the disease was clearly getting the upper hand in the battle, Dave remained the same hopeful, witty, entertaining, thoughtful person I’ve always known.
Yet, as his brother Dan wrote in a recent blog post, “ALS, like other terminal illnesses, forces you to redefine what you mean when you use words like ‘good’ and ‘hope.’ Dave says he can see losses every week. He no longer hopes to perform his one-man show. His idea of a good day has more to do with breathing well, with the help of his by-pap machine, and reading something stimulating than with treks into the city and hosting dinners for friends and family.”
At readings, his poem “Spring Fever,” was always a crowd-pleaser. It’s Dave’s “big hit.” He had to read it or his fans would clamor for it. He probably grew sick of reading it, not wanting to be a one-hit wonder.
When he read it at NYU in December, I immediately wanted to share it with my readers during National Poetry Month this year. Why? Because it has all those qualities I love in Dave and his poetry: humor, pathos, and a beautiful way of rendering tenderness in human interactions.
Here is David Simpson’s poem, “Spring Fever”:
A basketball bounces by the pharmacy as I go in.
Thin music from speakers overhead
mixes with the almost-B-flat hum of neon lights. A cashier,
seeing I am blind, locks her register,
grabs a basket, and leads me by the hand down narrow aisles
as we discuss best buys
on Colgate toothpaste with fluoride,
unscented stick deodorants, and three-roll packs
of two-ply toilet paper. In my ears,
my blood begins to prod: Condoms…condoms
and I say to her: “I need
batteries–four double A’s”
“and then, let’s check out the condom display.”
She stands on tiptoes to take down
the box of twelve Latex nonoxynol 9’s,
dips low to read me others that advertise
ribs and dimples, or flavors of mint
and mandarin. “Don’t get the mandarin,” she advises,
her hair brushing my hand as she stands up.
The brand name Excita makes us laugh a little
and I get to talking about Ramses and all his offspring
and what kind of confidence would a name like that
instill in someone looking for birth control?
To nearby customers, it might seem as if
we’re lovers, or very married. I wonder if she…
if we… I choose a pack of Lifestyles; she
puts them in the basket, and for just
a moment before we move
toward the checkout line, they are ours.
c) David Simpson
Used by permission of the author.
PS You can order Dave’s book — and I encourage you to do so — on Amazon.
My high school English teacher, Jack Langerak, introduced me to Kenneth Patchen’s writings and “picture poems,” which combined an abstract-cartoonish painting style with short poems of deep passion, environmental or political protest, and empathy.
Over the years I collected a number of Patchen’s books and artworks, including some rare limited edition cards, pamphlets, and reproductions of his paintings.
Then almost 30 years ago, while living in Cleveland, Ohio, I made a short film using Patchen’s poem, ‘I Went to the City.'” As a soundtrack, I used a 1959 LP of Patchen reading his poem accompanied by Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet.
The film had one screening at a small independent film event in Cleveland in 1986 and another at a party in my apartment there. Shortly after, I moved to Europe and the film, along with a handful of other films and a dozen paintings or so, went into a box for the next several decades.
I forgot about the film until a couple of years ago when Scottish photographer and filmmaker Alastair Cook produced a two “filmpoems” using my poems “Naming” and “Fallow Field.” I told Alastair about the film and he encouraged me to dig it up and submit it to his Filmpoem Festival this coming May.
Tracking down the rights to the soundtrack put me in touch with a couple of Patchen scholars, Jonathan Clark and Larry Smith, as well as the children of Allyn Ferguson, who in addition to his poetry-jazz work with Patchen, wrote the theme songs for “Barnie Miller,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “The Rookies,” among other television shows of my youth.
Perhaps most importantly, however, I’ve reengaged with Patchen’s poetry, which although it has fallen out of favor among readers today, seems even more relevant and important for our day.
Here is Kenneth Patchen’s poem. “I Went to the City”:
I WENT TO THE CITY
And there I did weep
Men a-crowin’ like asses,
And livin’ like sheep.
Oh, can’t hold the han’ of my love!
Can’t hold her little white han’!
Yes, I went to the city,
And there I did bitterly cry,
Men out of touch with the earth,
And with never a glance at the sky.
Oh, can’t hold the han’of my love!
Can’t hold her pure little han’!
I sent the film – in its original Super 8 form – to Alastair who will digitize it, so I hope to have a link to it on line in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, here is a link to the recording of Kenneth Patchen with Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet performing the poem (actually a string of short poems together under the same title): http://www.allmusic.com/song/i-went-to-the-city-mt0026333419
For more on Kenneth Patchen and his poetry: http://www.connectotel.com/patchen/