National Poetry Month 2015, Week Five: Sheree Mack’s “Called Witness”
April 30, 2015
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