The line I used is “History has failed us, but no matter.” This is the opening line of the historical novel, Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. It’s a gripping opening, similar to “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” and the novel more than lives up to its thesis statement, becoming my favorite book in 2020.
Imagine a world where property value, tax-paid infrastructure, the rule of law,
justice’s infuriatingly slow machinations,
tact, decorum, gold prices and golden manners,
collective peace-of-mind, tranquility of greater-good, and the easy flow of status-quo traffic
and blissful return to whatever we consider our communal normal
were all more important
than the unconscionable completely avoidable death of your son, or brother, or father, or lover.
Really imagine it though, and feel free to sub-out and imagine your daughter, sister, or mother instead
murdered by the state;
I didn’t recommend it because I’m no monster.
Now sit with that moment, that overcooked despair and rage as your civic institutions tell you with a dismissive shrug
that his death was unavoidable, his assailants, servants of the state are good and normal in completing the task of snuffing-out his light
and your reaction to his completely avoidable death is completely unreasonable and lives as proof of the sole reason why guys who look like him
– and yes, who look like you too –
are routinely slaughtered by the state-sanctioned violence in the first place.
He’s never coming back, his voice forever silenced
and there is no one with leveraged power to champion his cause, to validate your grief,
nowhere to turn to wring meaning from your loss.
What would you do? What is your next move?
Whatever you decide, best be quick about it.
Monday’s coming, and you’d better be on time with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.
Wouldn’t want to give anyone within the superstructure the wrong idea that you’re angry or resentful
or one of those malcontents out there disrupting the established order. ***
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
Ethel’s Club – Black-owned and operated social club offering access to Black therapists and a multitude of creative events for People of Color.
Crisis Text Line – A different approach to crisis intervention, Crisis Text Line offers you help when you text 741-741. You’ll be able to chat with someone who is willing to listen and provide you with additional resources.
Shine Text. – Black-owned! Sign up to receive cheerful texts and tips every day.
And last, but not least, our final (optional) prompt! In some past years, I’ve challenged you to write a poem of farewell for our thirtieth day, but this year, I’d like to challenge you to write a poem about something that returns. For, just as the swallows come back to Capistrano each year, NaPoWriMo and GloPoWriMo will ride again!
Sorry to end NaPoWriMo on such a dismal note. I could’ve gone with some type of spring renewal, but I guess I wasn’t there.
I was just sitting here thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic will most likely (and rightfully) squash the May Day protests tomorrow, but our US (and nearly global) capitalist economy is just chompin’ at the bit to throw our sick, broken bodies back into the churn, risk-assessment be damned. I hear talk of rushing to get “back to normal”, and it just makes me wonder, normal in relation to what, exactly?
Thanks for hanging with me this month. I’ll see you back here next year, but until then, feel free to hang out and read my infrequent poetry postings.
What can I say, Wolf? I’ve never owned any pets. Too much overhead, too much work,
oh, and also because of slavery.
Yes Wolf; I mentioned pet ownership and slavery in the same breath, but it’s not like you’re gonna call me on it; you’re just a dumb dog,
one that’s been dead for nearly thirty years.
But fine, I remember those soulful eyes, so I’ll try to explain it.
There’s something to be said of those unlucky in birth who persevere against all odds to overthrow their oppressors in triumph.
Americans especially love these underdog stories, as our recorded history is full of them.
But what of the other stories?
With Tubman, Douglass, and The Amistad as outliers of four-hundred years of mostly humdrum, garden-variety slavery, with all the standard rape, abuse, and outright murdering of slaves too stupid to mask their intelligence,
how many stories of the voiceless do we know?
It’s weird, Wolf. You were a dog – a beautiful German Shepherd/Doberman Pinscher mix
– but when I think of all the voiceless slaves who were born and died in unconscionable suffering, I think of you.
To be honest, Wolf, I haven’t thought of you in ages, and that’s a shame, but
the less remembered of your tragic life and death, the better for me.
Or perhaps not; after all, I’ve left your memory as it were, untamed, but there it sits upon my return, waiting patiently only for me.
What if my sidestepping your legacy is but one more injustice for you?
Our lives were intertwined for so long, with much of the trauma descendent directly from my ancestors in bondage.
You weren’t even my damn dog, but I was your reluctant caretaker, and there’s nothing poetic about feeding you and cleaning up your shit, but I felt your loyalty and your agony in-kind.
Wolf, you were an idiot of a dog, raised on ignorance and cruelty, and yet you were still sweet and loyal.
I’d given up on hiding grandma’s tools of discipline, as she’d just find herself a sturdier switch to snap on ya,
but I taught you to sit using head-rubs instead of grandma’s rubber hose; you were always a good boy.
I wish I had told you that more.
I remember you having the audacity to demand more head-rubs from me, swatting at my hand with your paw like Bunky the cat taught you, and I happily gave them to you.
I wish I’d given you all the head-rubs.
But I’d graduated the basement and fled to the Navy, making the cut despite the odds.
I heard of your fate secondhand, and I wept real tears over a freaking dog that I didn’t even own
who lived his entire existence chained to a waterpipe in a half-finished basement,
life snuffed-out, most likely, by someone well-known and trusted.
Can you imagine that?
Anyway, yeah, I’ve never cared for any pets.
Too much overhead, too much work, just too much. ***
And now for our daily prompt (optional, as always). Today, I challenge you to write a paean to the stalwart hero of your household: your pet. Sing high your praises and tell the tale of Kitty McFluffleface’s ascension of Mt. Couch. Let us hear how your intrepid doggo bravely answers the call to adventure whenever the leash jingles.
If you don’t have a pet, perhaps you know one or remember one who deserves to be immortalized in verse. For inspiration, I direct you to a selection from an 18th-century poem by Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, in which the poet’s praise for his cat ranges from “For he is docile and can learn certain things” all the way up to “For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.” Personally, I’m lucky if my cat doesn’t just sleep the day away, but I find her pretty delightful all the same.
This was painful to write, and I nearly scrapped the whole thing. I kept trying to walk away from it, but it kept calling me back.
It’s unpolished, and I won’t be revisiting it at all, but Wolf deserves to have his story told.
Three-hundred, ninety years ago, as millions of Central and West Africans traveled involuntarily towards bondage across the vast Atlantic in irons, light began its unimaginable journey of hundreds of trillions of miles from an undiscovered star-system where iron vapor condensed, raining down from a night sky of a planet twice the size of our King Jupiter that none yet on our good earth knew existed, the faint light finally reaching our astronomers last month.
News travels fast it seems, but I guess for some, not fast enough. ***
I’m gonna take the fall for this, aren’t I? it’s clear from the Holy One’s grip on me His glare into the heart of man, unmoved my wrist upturned, defenseless, submitting
Adam’s dumb gaze affixed on His judgement obedient, naked, dense, stupid beast bet he really thinks I come from his rib
fruitful and multiply like rabbits, eh? guess I have no say in the matter then?
mother of original sin? how droll mother of sciences is more like it
He may well yet bring me to my knees here but despite my side-eye, I won’t stay there. ***
NaPoWriMo Day 6: “…write a poem from the point of view of one person/animal/thing from Hieronymus Bosch’s famous (and famously bizarre) triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
I gotta be honest here; I hated this prompt. I didn’t enjoy viewing the art nor all the nightmare fuel within it (and there’s a lot going on here). Your mileage may vary, but I was pretty close to skipping this one when my eye caught the scene of God/Jesus, Adam and Eve. That scene compelled me to write this.
since the very first link
interlocked with the first shackle
since the first othering
reducing lives to fractions
since the first dividing for dividends
simplifying sturdy ones kept
from weakened, diseased stock
since the first grim reapings
of distant kin, then called savages
fearful souls denied empathy
by economy of the soulless
since the first casual cruelties
live bodies tossed overboard
to certain death, preserving assets
since then, we’re now civilized
rulers of the photon, electron
and enlightened electoral process
since then, we’ve shackled technology
harnessed the atom, the fossil,
the solar, and the wind
since then, we’re repeatedly shocked
by recordings of otherings
state-sanctioned slayings of our kin
in our own neighborhoods
as if the chain can’t be seen
winding back through relics
of collective suffering
since then, we’re now stunned into
soul-searching and handwringing
after electing the toxin from our past
to lead us back into the dark dystopia
from which we had never escaped
having never acknowledged
the forging of the first link
none of this is surprising
this is who we’ve always been
Just after his ill-advised drunken roughening
of his eldest child; a traditional, time-tested
tempering of adolescent ebony male steel
for a blackened, heartless, aggressive, manly world,
as was the loving intent lovingly lent to me
from him, a scruff-grabbing, face-slapping heirloom
passed down through generations of blunted mentorship.
I spied it briefly,
but it was there behind the noxious bravado,
deeper than dreaded defiance compelling him
to press his preteen into a flinty real man,
despite whimpering protests from soft, weak women;
yielding aunts, sisters, mothers wielding empathy
like mewling wussified consolation prizes
world-weary women who ironically knew well-
enough real pain to know better without having
to see it; who could blame them; they’re only women.
They don’t know what it’s like for a modern black man
to be crushed by callous strangers in a hard world;
only the intimacy of a bone-rattling
thump in the chest by a trusted father-figure
can prepare a young black boy for a crapsack world;
accept this gift in stoic silence, pay if forward,
and you best not shed a fuckin’ tear, young-blood, ya hear?
Yeah, I heard the words, and my chest burned, and
my face stung with blood flowing to the cheek-
capillaries of the light palm-strike, and the
lump in my throat sought exit in a sob
I denied, but in bracing to breathe, see,
there; I caught a glimpse.
“See? He ain’t hurt!” crowed dad, like a boss.
“That’s my boy! I know my fuckin’ son!
He ain’t no bitch! Ain’t that right, lil’ nigga?”
But when he asked for my co-sign, that’s when I saw it.
I saw it for the first time firsthand; buried within
the recesses of his whiskey-soaked eyes were hints
of its depths; similar scenes like this played, replayed
countless times over generations, his mentors
daring him not to cry after betraying him
with brutality-as-brotherly-love, calloused
hands hardening him for a world of hatred and
intolerance, his mentors’ elder brothers, uncles
delivering the same painful, loving lesson,
perhaps extending back to the days of shackles,
whips, toiling under another man’s burden
who saw us as less than three-fifths of a person.
Within that instant, that fraction of a second,
I saw in father’s eyes, a gaping, festering
generational wound not soothed by gulping whiskey;
my father’s pain leered at me across decades,
bloodshot and vile, that tough-love message twisted and
mangled, much like our very ancestry.
Do not cry.
Not here, not now,
“If you cry,
I’ll give you something
to really cry about.”
“Don’t you dare fuckin’ cry, boy.”
“A real man don’t cry.”
“Bury your pain like a man.”
“You better not cry, boy.
The women are watching.”
“Please don’t cry, boy.
If you do, shit,
I might cry too.”
“If you cry right now,
I’ll cry because you’re in pain,
because I caused it.”
“If I cry because I’m the cause of your pain,
then the cause of what I’ve done to you
will amount to absolutely nothing.”
“If you cry and then I cry,
then that can only mean
the way we’ve been told to live our lives
is just a bunch of bullshit.”
“If we cry right here, right now, together,
then that would mean compassion should’ve been
our strength, that yielding was the key the whole time,
that the words ‘behaving like a woman’
should never had been wielded as an insult,
and every man I know and respect
completely missed the fucking mark.”
“Please don’t cry now, son; don’t give the world the satisfaction.
Let’s save face together.”
I blinked back tears, willing them not to fall,
and painted a defiant smirk on my face.
“Naw I ain’t hurt, dad!
You know you ain’t raising no girl!”
Father playfully tussled my hair,
knowing our secret shame was safe,
brittle spirits hidden in plain sight,
now hardened for an unyielding world.