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.
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.]
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
the beach a babble
of scattered voices,
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,
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—
when we returned
to our rooms,
Bert washed the step
with the bottle
of holy water.
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
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.
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.
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.
The 2017 Irmo High School Poetry Slam featuring students in Mona Elleithee’s Poetry & Performance class, competing in written word poetry, poetry alive (performance of published poetry), and spoken word (performance of their own original work).