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.]

Poem for the March for Science South Carolina

survivor
for the SC March for Science, 22 April 2017

suburban deer pause in the empty lot next
door ears up bodies rigid in the light someone
leaves corn out for them they follow
the scent the creek to the river clatter
across asphalt streets at night eat the day-
lilies the kale the limelight hydrangeas one
day we find a fawn curled in the long grass
leaning not yet a lien the county will levy
against an absentee owner somewhere
glaciers calving caving carving themselves
off Antarctica where have you been where
would you go the calves drifting north a fawn
loping down Elm Abode’s not yet busy daylit

streets we will not know it will not notice
will not know that it is not the catastrophe we
expected though no less catastrophic hardly
hardy orchids budded at winter’s end not
ended white blooms the cold browns we
discover an armadillo burrowed beneath
the roses my mom says she’s never seen
them this far north before the gold spiders
gilding the air between the oaks mosquitoes
not killed not cold enough the cherry weeping

too early somewhere it’s Survivor another
season another immunity challenge somewhere
steam rising off pools of pale blue water
laced with boron and spent fuel rods resting
at the bottom a great desert ditch bristles
with warning cobalt blue yuccas modified
to blue like test tubes of blue blood bled
from horseshoe crabs Limulus polyphemus or
the one-eyed monster that sees the world
askew collected and bled for medicine and
released back to the sea most survive only
a third die the yuccas are modified to mark
the ridge the ditch the hot spot for millennia
to come

Visiones

As poet laureate, I gathered 6 “river poems” by local poets that appeared on film screens between films during the 2016 Indie Grits film festival last year, Watermarked. April is also National Poetry Month! I wanted to do this again this year for the 2017 Indie Grits festival, Visiones, a multidisciplinary film and arts festival focused on the Latinx community and Latin American artists. So, if you attended this year, you may have seen one of the following poems ahead of film screenings.

Dream/Sueña – Vera Gómez
Believe me – Juan David Cruz
State of Nation – Loli Molina
La salida – Santiago Garcia-Castanon
Visions – Manuel J. Torres-Angel, aka TManning
Las Semilitas (Tiny Seeds) – Lissette Landa Treanor
Contigo y sin ti – Gloria Bayne
Thanks to the Nickelodeon Theatre, Indie Grits, the wonderful contributing poets, and the City of Columbia. Happy National Poetry Month!

Did you get a parking ticket??

A big happy National Poetry Month to you! …..And, happy April Fools!

Maybe you walked out to your car today and found a “parking ticket” under your windshield wiper. Were you shocked? Were you upset? But then you were met with the realization that a poet had pranked you while giving you a lovely little poem to take on your way. Be sure to share your experience on social media by using the hashtags #columbiapoet and #parkingpoems! Here’s a gallery of all six poems, provided by South Carolina poets Brian Slusher, Vera Gomez, Dale Bailes, Kathleen Nalley, Barbara Hagerty and Tim Conroy.

This project, coordinated as part of the activities of Columbia’s Poet Laureate, was the kick off to a celebration here in Columbia of National Poetry Month. You’ll see a few more activities around the city that are being coordinated including an updated set of poems on the COMET, poems on screen during this year’s Indie Grits festival and maybe some surprises you’ll only see when it rains (more details to come).

Celebrate poetry. And, I hope you enjoyed the fun joke.

Body Politic

Written for Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address, 31 Jan 2017.

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. – I Corinthians 12:15

When thousands of women with pink hats
and placards fill the streets, think
about how a city handles
bodies, guides them down sidewalks
and streets, between walls of stone
and state, about the way a mass
of bodies is a way of saying
something, as when a march exceeds
its brief circuit of the city
and ends up on the interstate,
as if to say these bodies matter,
precarious, here and now. A city
is a body, the old philosophers
say, a leader the head, the soldiers
his hands. A church, they say, or palace
is like a brain, a place to pause,
reflect. Or it’s the heart, stained
glass and cold walls, glimmer
of something larger. But that’s too easy
a figure of order and power. A city
is many bodies, moving, touching,
talking, gathered together, a place
where differences matter and meet,
a song written to the beat of many feet.

In the neighborhood assessment, the teacher
asks us to think about how bodies
move, how and where they go.
How many banks or payday lenders
within a mile of your house, she says,
how many grocery stores, libraries, schools?
These are moral questions. How far
is health care from where you are,
if you had no car? Are there
sidewalks where you live? She turns
her hands up as she asks—as if
they could be filled. What can people do?
What do they have access to?

Sometimes, the prophet says, your body
is your only weapon, he says,
you put your body in the street
to say what needs be said. Sometimes,
he says, you tuck your body in
so the wheels don’t turn. You hold
your hand up, empty. You lift
your hand above your eyes, as if
to shade the sun, as if you’re looking
into the distance, when you’re just
looking to the future, for what’s
not yet here. Hold your hand out
to someone—we do it all the time—
consider how we greet each other
in handshake or bro hug, fist bump
or bussed cheek, what we do
when we meet, the grammar of hands
and bodies, of who we are and what
we think of one another. A mass
of bodies is saying something—
whether it’s a market shutting
down Main, a dinner on a bridge,
a great crowd of witnesses watching
a flag come down, or maybe a room
of people sitting together, listening
to a man who asks them to imagine
themselves part of one body,
one city, one place,
sharing each other’s fate.

*

Our city lifts its hand to shade its eyes.
Our city wants to see into the distance.
Our city does not turn its back.
Our city does not hog the table.
Our city knows everyone is disabled in some way.
Our city offers a hand, opens a door.
Our city likes to talk.
Our city would rather build a bridge than build a wall.
Our city wants to hear your story.
Our city leans to listen.
Our city knows its soul is filled by art.
Our city sets a light out when it’s dark.
Our city is not a clenched fist.
Our city does not turn its back.
Our city never says I alone can fix it.
Our city knows we only get there together.
Our city wipes its brow, gets to work.

At the corner of Lady and Main

a poem for South Carolina Pride, 3 September 2016

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking about a First Lady—
not the former First Lady who may
become the first, but the first
First Lady, the one this street’s named for,
her husband,Washington, a block away.
And I’m thinking about Kenny Rogers,
or maybe Lionel Richey, who wrote
the song—Lady, for so many years
I thought I’d never find you—and after
so many years of marching around
this city and state, we found the place,
Lady and Main,and we’re here, we’re queer,
and we’re ready, I think, for a party.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main
I’m thinking about where and when
we live. Ten years ago and a block
behind me, a bunch of men decided
to put an amendment on the ballot
for that November, and they would fight
to the bitterest end to keep our love
illegal. That March, a group of students
stuck black tape across their mouths
in a room of legislators who liked
to talk about us but not to listen.
Ten years ago this very week,
a rich white guy complained when our
campaign included anti-racist
training. He said that he would cancel
his fundraiser and cut off his donations
to the cause, if we made race
a part of what we do. We did,
we worked hard, and lost the vote,
but still we won, and still the work’s not done.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m humming Lionel Richie, but maybe
also a little Lady Marmalade,
since I’m sure there are some
voulez-vous couchez avec moi
conversations out there in the street,
as there should be on a gorgeous day like today.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking about where we live.
Main is straight, stops at the statehouse.
There’s a wig shop or two, a few
places to eat, and the only theatre
in town that shows that queer film
you really wanted to see, and Main
may lean and swerve around as you head
up north and out of town, but here
it’s a street that’s very straight
that begins and ends at the state.
Stand here at the corner of Lady
and Main and you can’t help but think
about gender and race, whose story
gets told, whose stories don’t, here
on a street that stops at a monument
to men who died fighting for a lie
they’d been told, that black bodies
only matter when they’re bought and sold.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking it’s nice that Lady runs
athwart, across, she runs at odds
to Main, reminds us there are other
places to go, other ways to live
than those dictated a block away.
She lingers by the river, heads over
to Waverly, the city’s first suburb,
a home to black artists and activists.
Lady reminds us of place and time,
one end rooted in a history of civil
rights, the other ending at the river
that keeps sweeping by, gone
before you can hold it in your hand.
She keeps a little distance between
herself and that big copper dome
that kept out blacks too long, doesn’t
welcome many women, and has never
seen an open queer of any gender
or color take a seat at the table.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I remember when I was growing up,
in church, we talked about the kingdom,
about living in this world but living
for another at the same time.
It’s like living in two worlds at once.
A few years ago at Charlotte Pride,
there at the corner of Tryon and Trade,
three people in a row stopped by
the South Carolina table to say
that they were the only gay in Gaffney.
They had to go to Charlotte to be free.
There were at least three queers in Gaffney
who didn’t know each other, couldn’t
see each other. They had to go
somewhere else to see what was possible.

So here at the corner of Lady and Main,
look around,and see what’s possible.
Live what is possible, love
who you want to love, and be kind
to one another. Sometimes we’re not
that kind to one another. There is no
somewhere over a rainbow, somewhere
a place for us. This is the place.
Put the rainbow here at the corner
of Lady and Main, and make of the here
and now a future—a there and then, not if but when.

PRIDE_rt_31