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]

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.

When we’re told we’ll never understand

A reading of the poem “When we’re told we’ll never understand” from “Hercules and the Wagoner: Reflections, South Carolina, June 17-22, 2015.” This poem was written in response to the tragedy at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and in conjunction with the efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the SC Statehouse grounds.

The poem was originally read as part of the Take It Down rally at the Statehouse on June 20, 2015 and reprinted in both the Free Times and The State Newspaper.