Interstate Prayer

Created as part of the annual ArtLinc chalk art festival in the Lincoln Street Tunnel with my husband Bert Easter. Full text below photo.

Interstate Prayer

Every day the same, here along
the road, the cups and bottles people toss
away, the things we shed, evidence
of our careless lives. The wind does
what it can, the vines that hide our trash
with green–still there. May we turn to see
what we have done. May we better care
for what we’re given, here beside the rivers.

National Poetry Month 2018

April is National Poetry Month and this year’s recognition took many forms. While we didn’t pull pranks the same way as last year, we worked hard to get poetry out to as many people in their daily lives as possible. Through partnerships with the Comet, Indie Grits, Main Street District, Enjoy SC and Soda City, we were able to feature poetry in a public setting in a variety of ways.

“A lot of things we’ve been working on all came together this year,” says Madden. “I love that we’re putting poetry into daily life in so many ways, and I’m especially grateful to all the writers who were so generous with their work.”

Poetry on the Comet – In it’s third year, the Poetry on the Comet project brings together 30 different poems by authors from Columbia and South Carolina based on the Indie Grits 2018 theme “Two Cities.” Poetry has been posted prominently on the buses, was shared daily on Ed Madden’s Facebook page and is being published as a chapbook. Select poems were also displayed on screen during the 2018 Indie Grits Festival.

Main Street Banners – Poems by eight South Carolina poets were displayed on banners along Main Street for the month of April. The selections include phrases by James Dickey, Susan Laughter Meyers, Nikky Finney, Ed Madden, Ray McManus, Terrance Hayes, Marjory Wentworth and DeLana R.A. Dameron.

Free & Clear – Similar to the ubiquitous Little Free Libraries that families host in their yards throughout the city, poetry boxes are being hosted in neighborhoods across Columbia and offer free poems about homeownership and community. Passersby are offered the chance to take home a poem of their own.

EnjoySC: Make Poetry at the State House – Hosted by One Columbia for Arts & History and Ed Madden, Columbia’s Poet Laureate, in partnership with the City of Columbia through a Knight Cities Challenge Grant, the Enjoy SC: Make Poetry event featured poets from across South Carolina reading poetry on April 18 and April 21 . Attendees consulted with poets on-site who will type a take-home poem on typewriters.

Window and Wall

for Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address, 30 Jan 2018

“Cities have awakened….”
Harlan Kelsey and Irvin Guild, The Improvement of Columbia, South Carolina (1905)

It took nine months of work.

Painting the wall, he carved out a tunnel, hung the sun in front of us.

Nine white overhead lights lead us through the tunnel to the other side.

We did not deem it desirable, at this time, said Kelsey & Guild in 1905, to place too much emphasis upon detail, because, in doing so, the main objects sought might easily be lost sight of.

The details of the mural trick the eye, the real stone merging with the fake, the real metal barriers beside the painted traffic signs.

The things that seem to block the way are the things that make you see.

The real windows on the wall look fake, become part of the painting: the vision of what’s beyond is the point.

Cities have awakened, wrote Kelsey and Guild, to the urgent need for a systematic plan for [the] future.

In 1976, People magazine called the image “a brilliant orange sunset.” The State newspaper later called it “a descending sun.”

A comprehensive plan for development, said Kelsey & Guild, should consider well the tendencies of growth, and the physical features that … govern such growth.

Two white arrows show both lanes going forward, no one is headed back.

It is not clear, really, if the sun is rising or setting.

My first few weeks in Columbia, a friend drove me over to see it, early evening, the moment the tunnel seems most real, as if you could drive into it.

The sun is the same size as a yellow traffic sign that warns of a right turn ahead, the road curving away and out of sight. Forty years ago, he warned us of a hard swerve to the right, something we couldn’t yet see.

It is quite possible, Kelsey & Guild admitted, that this report will be more useful in its suggestions that in the plan outlined.

Blue Sky told People magazine, I wanted to reach through that wall, touch something larger than life.

Rumor is a kid once drove right into the mural.

The South Carolina Encyclopedia reminds us that Kelsey and Guild’s proposals were too ambitious to receive serious consideration, but they set a precedent for comprehensive planning.

The things that block the way must be
the things that help you see.

The wall was a way out.

The windows are dark,
the sun is shining in front of us.

 

The Sound of a Needle on Vinyl

written for the launch of Amplify, a Cultural Plan for the Columbia Area

with thanks to the many friends who responded to my question on Facebook about their first experiences of arts and culture, many of which appear in the poem

 

I give you the macramé owl, the one with broken pinecones for eyes.

I give you the candy dish on the coffee table, its hard nuggets of sugar and color stuck together.

I give you the turkey made from a drawing of your hand.

I give you those big picture books with cracked spines that your mother read to you, the way her voice changed to shape the story.

And then there’s your dad, putting on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, turning it up and dancing around. Not gracefully, a little unhinged, but with a lot of passion.

I give you that first concert—was it Michael Jackson? You memorized the names of all five Jacksons, memorized the songs. You were jealous of your cousin’s pierced ear, that dangling glove earring. You slept with his albums under your bed in hopes that you would dream of him and his tiger. You were eight.

Can you see the little girl in pigtails, dancing in the dining room till dinnertime?

Or the little boy obsessed with mime?

I give you that moment someone explained to you that when someone dies onstage it’s make-believe.

I give you that moment you fell asleep during the musical, or during church, and then when you woke up during the last song, you thought you had woken up in heaven.

What was the first song that made you cry?

Do you remember the first time you smelled a darkroom?

I give you the bright plaster tropical fish swimming across Aunt Betty’s bathroom, fish not found in nature, but found in Aunt Betty’s bathroom.

I give you the bronze and copper statues of deer in your grandfather’s office, the way they felt in your hand when you played with them. You were not supposed to play with them. The doe with a relief image of a fawn on her stomach.

I give you the stiletto heels you mother spray-painted gold and placed elves inside, your favorite Christmas decoration.

I give you the carnival glass cup your grandmother drank her coffee from, iridescent, you thought it beautiful, and the demitasse spoon she used to stir in the Pet Milk.

Who was the child in that framed portrait at the back of Granny Lola’s house? Was the child dead? They used to do that. I give you that dark, hand-carved frame.

I give you the old man at your grandma’s church who taught you to sing with shaped notes. It was serious business. It was like a foreign language.

I give you the women’s syncopated clapping, the shuffling of feet, the bending and rising of bodies with the lyrics of the song.

I give you that moment you picked out your mom among the other women, sure you heard her voice alone.

I give you Mrs. Slavin’s weekly music class, the five-line chalk holder she used to draw a musical staff on the board, the way it would sometimes squeal, then she’d write in the notes. You loved her weekly visits and the songs she taught you. You still remember “Hava Nagilah.”

I give you Leontyne Price and some guy singing on PBS when you were flipping through the channels. It was Samson and Delilah. You didn’t understand what they were saying, but you were, for that moment, in another world.

I give you Bugs Bunny and The Rabbit of Seville.

I give you that place under the piano where you’d sit while your aunt played.

I give you the first time you saw deaf people waving their hands in applause. It was after a dance performance. Their silence and motion was as beautiful as the dance.

Do you remember the May Day celebration at Earlewood Park, decades ago, your dress made of crepe paper—it was the prettiest dress in the world—crepe paper like the streamers, weaving in and out, plaiting the pole.

I give you your mother laying out the pattern for a dress on the dining table and cutting out the fabric pieces.

I give you Spirograph, Etch-a-Sketch, string art, Light Bright, Play-doh, and that little plastic handmade potholder loom.

I give you your grandmother’s quilt, made of old clothes, tablecloths, sheets, anything. They were not traditional patterns. They were beautiful. They kept you warm.

I give you the oriental rug in the floor of your family’s military housing. It mesmerized you. You could ride the elephants all day.

I give you the black and white prints of classical architecture—Ionic, Doric, acanthus leaves—hanging in the cramped rooms of a tract home.

Your aunts would tell stories in the living room, and your uncles would tell stories outside under the oak trees. When did you realize these were two very different sets of stories?

I give you your uncle’s swanky Eames chair.

I give you the tacky ashtray of an exotic topless woman that your dad and his buddy passed back and forth every Christmas. The lei of flowers was perfectly placed, her figure perfectly balanced to rock back and forth. It was the 1950s. You grew up to be a feminist.

I give you the drum solo in In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly. You listened to it with your dad in the car. It’s the reason you took drum lessons.

I give you your mother singing, her clear powerful soprano, until chemotherapy and radiation took her voice away.

I give you the organ in the corner no one ever played.

Your father brought it home from the war, that little Swiss-made wooden music box. Your mother used to wind it up and place it on her pillow when you lay down for a nap. When your father died, your mother gave it to you.

When was it you realized you were tone-deaf and started to sing only in the car or in your head? I want you to sing again.

I give you Aunt Mary’s sound system, the red velvet panels and wood carvings, and the sound of Billie Holiday.

I give you Billie Holiday’s voice and the crackling sound of a needle on vinyl.

I give you the crackling sound of a needle on vinyl.

[Note: A shorter version of this poem was read aloud at the Amplify Launch Event on January 29, 2018]

Poems on the COMET 2018

CALL FOR POEMS

Theme: Two Cities

In fall 2015, poems appeared on Columbia’s buses, telling the stories of the city. In spring 2017, we saw poems about rivers posted on city buses and on movie screens during the Indie Grits Waterlines film festival. This year, we’re looking for poems about how we experience the city, what separates us and what unites us.

We’re thinking about the Indie Grits theme for 2018: “Two Cities.” We all live in the same city, but we work and live in the city in different ways. We experience the city in different ways—its landscapes and streets, its neighborhoods, its social and political spaces.

  • What are the frontiers of your city? What spaces define your experience?
  • What social events, what networks, what communities are your city?
  • How do race or socioeconomic factors define your experiences and interactions within our shared city? What spaces are accessible? How has your world been shaped by gentrification, accessibility (including access to the arts), housing displacement or development? by sidewalks and libraries and green spaces? By churches and community centers? By railroad tracks and speed bumps and traffic lights and bus stops?
  • How do we make our city more open, more inclusive, more welcoming? How do we have difficult conversations? How do we break down barriers, make things more accessible, express and experience empathy?

Because this year’s Indie Grits Labs are focused North Main, we are especially interested in poems by writers from North Main neighborhoods or poems about Main and North Main.

Requirements:

Poems should be 10 lines or fewer & should address the theme. Submit your poems to poetlaureate@onecolumbiasc.com by Feb 15, 2018, for consideration.

A New Year

— for Coralee

Bert’s outside taking down the strings
of lights, this winter sun bright enough
for a new day, new year. Colleen sent
a thick heart made of seeds—we’ll hang it
in a tree today for birds, for the winter
that persists despite the sun. Last night’s
fireworks were gorgeous, though Barry ran back
and forth with his torch to relight them—
the way, sometimes, we have to do for
our little resolutions, for our glorious
dreams, for our tired hearts, when it’s
dark, when it’s still so cold.

Crossing – for the 2017 Gervais Street Bridge Dinner

Crossing

for John Lane, who writes about our rivers, and for Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, who protects them

Back then, crossing over was an event—
the bridge told you so, its arches and fancy
lanterns—time moved on below you. Crossing

over meant becoming someone, a different
being headed to a different place. Of course
Sherman had burned an earlier one. Back then,

you could get off the trolley at the Richland end
of the Gervais Street bridge, walk up the canal
to Irwin Park on Laurel, with its tiny zoo

and its view of the state penitentiary, a park
blacks could use only on Tuesdays and Thursdays—
so many ways to lock things up, block things

off, like dropping rocks on the toxic sludge
of coal tar that leaked back then and now lines
the river bottom from here down to Blossom.

Turn the tap and take a glass of water.
Imagine it, the whole watershed distilled
into eight clear ounces in your hand,

filtered first by the mussels before it ever
reaches a treatment plant, the slabshells
and heelsplitters, the pink rayed fatmucket.

Upstream, rivers of traffic now converge
on the I-26 bridge, slow down to sluggish
in the daily rush, and we’re lucky if we even turn

soon enough to see the great blue heron
like an origami trick, a cantankerous kite,
unfolding itself into flight against the sky.

On considering the bronze bust of J. Marion Sims at the northwest corner of the South Carolina statehouse grounds, at a reading for the monument’s removal, 7 Sept 2017

This poem was written for MEND: A Poetry Marathon to advance the removal of the J. Marion Sims Monument at the S.C.Statehouse and read aloud at the monument on September 7, 2017.

 

Now   wasn’t there some good?
            – Bettina Judd, “After Memory,” Patient (2014)

“That a historical figure existed at a different time, with different norms, is not irrelevant. But it is only one consideration in the fraught and important question, as to who should loom over us on pedestals, enshrined in metal or stone.”
– Ross Andersen, The Atlantic, 6 Sept 2017

“The first surgeon of the ages in ministry to women, treating alike empress and slave.”
– from the left panel of the Sims monument, SC Statehouse                       grounds

 

Because he was not, in fact, physician to empress and slave alike; because he used the bodies of black women and poor women to launch what would become a lucrative practice among wealthy women; because he would not have been physician to an empress in a mansion if he had not first experimented on enslaved women in a shed behind his house;

Because Anarcha and Lucy and Betsy are named as enslaved women in his autobiography but are never given voice;

Because he says of Betsy that “she willingly consented”;

Because he invented 71 instruments to aid in childbirth, yes, but because he started with a pewter spoon and a cobbler’s awl; because an awl is a long spike used for piercing leather; because this monument remembers the Sims position and the Sims speculum, but it does not remember the shoemaker’s tool that he used to pry the bones of a newborn African infants’ skulls into proper alignment; because the fatality rate for those operations was 100 percent;

Because he did not use anesthesia on black women; because he was sure they could endure the pain; because they thought blacks had a higher tolerance for pain; because the pain was so great, he asked other men to hold them down;

Because he asked his students to pull the buttocks apart so that he might see better;

Because he whitewashed his woodcuts of black women’s bodies when he moved to New York, so his patrons and students there would not know that he experimented on the bodies of enslaved women;

Because this monument was erected in May 1929 by the Women’s Auxilliary of the South Carolina Medical Association; because the most popular radio show in American in 1929 was Amos ‘n’ Andy; because Martin Luther King Jr. was born four months before in Georgia;

Because the elegant cement curve of the steps of the Sims monument, and the wall broken by the bust of J. Marion Sims so ironically echo the elegant curve of the African American History Monument across the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, a wall of images broken by the historical fissure of the Emancipation Proclamation;

Because the bronze bust of J. Marion Sims, his disembodied head and chest, suggests that this is a monument to reason and affection and not to the body, the disappeared and disappearing body, the disappeared, disavowed, but not disowned bodies of enslaved women;

Because the black women’s bodies erased by this monument are described in great detail in Sims’ biography as loathsome and disgusting;

Because he tells the story with such ease, because he stopped at the store and bought a spoon and then he stopped at his office and called out to his students, “Come, boys, go to the hospital with me,” because he then asked them to lay hold of her buttocks and pull them open; because he says Betsy “willingly consented”; because a jaunty “Come, boys, go with me” is the story of the invention of the speculum;

Because he performed clitoridectomies on women, because hysteria and improper sexual behavior were pathologized as gynecological illnesses;

Because consent no longer means the consent of your owner;

Because consent no longer means the consent of your husband;

Because the elliptical arch around this disembodied head suggests a cartouche, suggests the hieroglyphic oval enclosing a royal name; because the elliptical arch around this bronze bust suggests the halo arching over an image of a saint; because it suggests the clitoris under the hood;

Because when you stand in front of the bust of J. Marion Sims, he looks down on you, on us, looks down on this mixed crowd; because when you stand in front of the bust of J. Marion Sims, he can’t quite look you in the eye;

Because getting rid of a monument is not the same thing as erasing history; because the installation of a monument is not an accurate representation of history but an elevation of a particular representation, a particular representative, a particular reduction of history;

Because we should continue to teach the history of J. Marion Sims, his 71 instruments, his bent spoon, his shoemaker’s awl; because we should teach the names of Betsy, and Lucy, and Anarcha; because we should say the names;

Because even though some say the history of J. Marion Sims may be nuanced and complex, this monument is not.

 

 

[A note on the form: I had in mind the series of “because” clauses that often structure a formal resolution. This does not end, however, with “be it resolved,” since there is not yet resolution.]

Red, White, Black, or Before the Eclipse

Originally posted to The Good Men Project on August 21, 2017. 

Red, White, Black, or Before the Eclipse

14 Aug 2017

The darkness drops again – W. B. Yeats

Odd to see it there in the old temple this summer, the sign
of wellbeing—a bent cross turning, a swastika, the sun—
so odd to see it in stone, even though we know it means

it meant something different. Was that the same temple where they
said Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims prayed together, bathed
together in holy water, until they no longer did? The place

was holy; we wore the red sarongs required to enter.
That seems so long ago. Back home we see flags the color
of blood, that bent cross, stark, in black and white. At Tirta

Empul’s holy springs we didn’t bathe, despite an offer
of lockers and green robes. Bert said it felt wrong
to step into someone else’s sacred ritual. We watched

wet tourists standing waist-deep in the pool smile
for selfies, flash peace signs. It didn’t feel holy. Still,
there among grinning tourists and Hindu faithful, we’d filled

a water bottle, not knowing what for. Tanah Lot
felt different, the sky white with rain, the sun a bright spot
out on the face of the sea. Our guide said our offerings

would help with renovations, so we fell in line, leaned over
the pool to wash our faces. Priests daubed foreheads with water
and rice, tucked frangipani behind our ears, the tide

coming in
the beach a babble
of scattered voices,

a book
of useless phrases
in my pocket.

*

The Balinese wrap trees and statues in sarongs of checkered black
and white like men at worship, the harmony important, balance.
Guardian figures flank a temple door. Our guide explained a mace

against the left shoulder means evil, mace against the right,
good. Otherwise they look the same. You must have both,
he said, but you have to see the difference. Everywhere

we saw small offerings at doorsteps, bright flowers and rice
cupped in leaves woven with prayer. The air was incense and kites,
everywhere the empty black chair of the god of gods, outside

every home, in every field, at the bend of every road,
at the bookshop where we bought incense blessed
by a priest and bound together with braided thread, red,

white, and black. Temple signs still forbid entrance
to menstruating women. A woman at the coffee market
asked why travelers don’t like Trump. We talked difference

and fear. You are you, she pointed at Bert. I am me.
We accept. The only lingams we found were gaudy
bottle-openers in souvenir stalls. Our last day in Bali,

we found a small bird shuddering on our front step—
small sounds and then it was still. Bert scooped it up
gently, left it in the flowers. It felt something like a sign.

One day, when I told Wayan I’m a teacher, he pulled over
for a large statue of Saraswati, so I could see her better,
her book and lute, her beads, her swan, her jar of water.

One night, as he drove us back, we saw men in white
shirts and dark sarongs walking along the road, the night
quiet. Wayan drove slow. They’re going to temple, he said,

The thin line of men and boys, torches lifted, thickened
into a crowded procession, women with baskets, children,
and then at the end, like a grinning apparition

from the dark, the barong—more giant dog than lion,
more muppet than rough beast, great shaggy guardian
of the good, and then it was gone,

and we drove on,
and darkness
dropped

again,
took back
the road.

*

Coming back, jet lag was hard, our bodies on a different clock,
the news one long banner of anger, hard to watch,
men in white shirts lifting torches on a college lawn,

and then the air was tear gas and mace, banners
wielded as weapons, that old sun sign back on flags
and armbands the way we know it now, in white and black.

A card tucked with the incense said to wear the braided
thread around the right wrist for protection, red,
white, and black. I’ve placed Saraswati on my desk,

the bracelet on my wrist. Soon, a wave of darkness will pass
over us, the sun gone, the air cold. We’ll wear the glasses
that let us look into the dark without going blind. Our last

day there in Bali, we avoided news from home.
We ate breakfast at a French bakery, watched a woman
bless the ATMs across the parking lot. At the museum,

we picked our favorites. Bert stood at the fountain
of Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Waça, radiant and one,
god of all gods, beams of light like spikes shining from

his body, like forks at each joint, his genitals a curling
trident of light. For me it was the painting of Rahu swallowing
the sun, light shining between his teeth, the sun emerging

from his severed throat. Everywhere,
that last day there, I remembered,
tried to remember

to say thank you
in their tongue—
suksuma.

That evening,
when we returned
to our rooms,

Bert washed the step
with the bottle
of holy water.