Our Wail Starts Up

Rita Dove

Political 

(for Breyten Breytenbach )

by Rita Dove

There was a man spent seven years in hell’s circles–
no moon or starlight, shadows singing
their way to slaughter. We give him honorary status.
There’s a way to study freedom but few have found
it; you must talk yourself to death and then beyond,
destroy time, then refashion it. Even Demeter keeps digging
towards that darkest miracle,
the hope of finding her child unmolested.

This man did something ill advised, for good reason.
(I mean he went about it wrong.)
And paid in shit, the world is shit and shit
can make us grown. It is becoming the season
she was taken from us. Our wail starts up
of its own accord, is mistaken for song


It’s February!  And with it I generally spend a little more time seeking out African American writers in honor of Black History Month.  I wanted to start out with a bang, one of my favorite modern sonnet writers, Rita Dove.  The poem above made my curious about Breyton Breytenbach, a name and a writer I was not familar.  Breytenbach was a poet, writer, civil rights crusader in South Africa during Apartheid who spent years in prison for trumped up charges of just being correct in his opinions in defiance of the government at the time.   Breytenbach received world wide acclaim, and raised awareness of the racist government policies that still existed at the time.   Still alive, these two poems, paired together, illustrate the power of words to change people’s minds and hearts and governments, something none of us in the United States should take for granted as we vigilantly must stand up for voting rights in the face of political distortion shrinking the right to the ballot box in too many parts of this country.



Rebel Song

by Breyten Breytenbach

give me a pen
so I may sing
that life is not in vain

give me a season
an autumn a spring
to see sky with open eyes
when the peach tree vomits its white plenitude
a tyranny will be brought to earth

let mothers lament;
may breasts become dry
and wombs shrivel
when the scaffold finally weans its own

give me that love
which won’t rot between fingers,
give me a love like this love I must give you,
my dove

grant me a heart
that will pulsate its throb
more strongly than the white thrashing
heart of a terrified dove in the dark
knock louder than bitter bullets

give me a heart
small fountain of blood
to spout blossoms of bliss
for blood is never for naught

I need to die before I’m dead
when my heart is still fertile and red
before I eat the darkened soil of doubt

give me two lips
and bright ink for tongue
to write the earth
one vast love letter
swollen with the milk of mercy

sweeter day by day
spilling all bitterness
burning as summer
burns sweeter

then let it be summer
without blindfolds or ravens
allow the gallows to give the peach tree
its red fruit of satisfaction

and grant me a love song
of doves of atonement
so I may sing my life was not in vain

for as I die
to wide eyes
under sky
my red song will not lie
my red song will never die

I Could Not Sleep

Claude McKay (1889 – 1948)

“Nations, like plants and human beings, grow. And if the development is thwarted they are dwarfed and overshadowed.”

Claude McKay

All Yesterday It Poured

by Claude McKay

All yesterday it poured, and all night long
I could not sleep; the rain unceasing beat
Upon the shingled roof like a weird song,
Upon the grass like running children’s feet.
And down the mountains by the dark cloud kissed,
Like a strange shape in filmy veiling dressed,
Slid slowly, silently, the wraith-like mist,
And nestled soft against the earth’s wet breast.
But lo, there was a miracle at dawn!
The still air stirred at touch of the faint breeze,
The sun a sheet of gold bequeathed the lawn,
The songsters twittered in the rustling trees.
And all things were transfigured in the day,
But me whom radiant beauty could not move;
For you, more wonderful, were far away,
And I was blind with hunger for your love.


Used

by Rita Dove

The conspiracy’s to make us thin. Size threes
are all the rage, and skirts ballooning above twinkling knees
are every man-chld’s preadolescent dream.
Tabla rasa. No slate’s that clean–

we’ve earned the navels sunk in grief
when the last child emptied us of their brief
interior light. Our muscles say We have been used.

Have you ever tried silk sheets? I did,
persuaded by postnatal dread
and a Macy’s clerk to bargain for more zip.
We couldn’t hang on, slipped
to the floor and by morning the quilts
had slid off, too. Enough of guilt–
It’s hard work staying cool.

There Is A Journey From Me To You

Margaret Walker Alexander (1915 – 1998)

“The poetry of people comes from the deep recesses of our unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories.”

Margaret Walker

The Struggle Staggers Us

by Margaret Walker

Our birth and death are easy hours like sleep
and food and drink. The struggle staggers us
for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.
And this is more than fighting to exist,
more than revolt and war and human odds.
There is a journey from Me to You.
There is a journey from You to Me.
A union of the two strange worlds must be.

Ours is a struggle from a too warm bed,
too cluttered with a patience full of sleep.
Out of this blackness we must struggle forth:
from want of bread, of pride, of dignity.
Struggle between the morning and the night,
this marks our years, this settle too, our plight.


Kahlo _1

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait. 

Sonnet in Primary Colors

by Rita Dove

This is for the woman with one black wing
perched over her eyes: lovely Frida, erect
among parrots, in the stern petticoats of the peasant,
who painted herself a present–
wildflowers entwining the plaster corset
her spine resides in the romance of mirrors.

Each night she lay down in pain and rose
to her celluloid butterflies of her Beloved Dead,
Lenin and Marx and Stalin arrayed at the footstead.
And rose to her easel, the hundred dogs panting
like children along the graveled walks of the garden, Diego’s
love a skull in the circular window
of the thumbprint searing her immutable brow.

Just When Hope Withers

Rita Dove
Rita Dove

I was apprehensive. I feared every time I talked about poetry, it would be filtered through the lens of race, sex, and age.

Rita Dove

Found Sonnet: The Wig

by Rita Dove

100% human hair, natural; Yaki synthetic, Brazilian blend,
Malaysian, Kanekalon, Peruvian Virgin, Pure Indian;
iron-friendly, heat-resistant; bounce, volume, featherweight,
Short ’n’ Sassy, Swirls & Twirls, Smooth & Sleek and Sleek & Straight,

Wet and Wavy, Futura fibre, weave-a-wig or Shake-n-Go;
classic, trendy, micro-kink; frosted pixie, tight cornrow;
full, three-quarter, half, stretch cap, drawstring, ear tabs, combs;
chignon, headband, clip-in bangs; easy extensions and ponytail domes—

long or bobbed, hand-tied, layered, deep twist bulk, prestyled updo,
Remi closure, Swiss lace front, invisible L part, J part, U;
feathered, fringed, extended neck; tousled, spiky, loose cascades,
sideswept, flipped ends, corkscrews, spirals, Rasta dreads, Ghana braids;

Passion Wave, Silk Straight, Faux Mohawk, Nubian locks, Noble Curl:
Cleopatra, Vintage Vixen, Empress, Hera, Party Girl.

Published in New Yorker, 2016.


Exit

by Rita Dove

Just when hope withers, the visa is granted.
The door opens to a street like in the movies,
clean of people, of cats; except it is your street
you are leaving. A visa has been granted,
“provisionally”—a fretful word.
The windows you have closed behind
you are turning pink, doing what they do
every dawn. Here it’s gray. The door
to the taxicab waits. This suitcase,
the saddest object in the world.
Well, the world’s open. And now through
the windshield the sky begins to blush
as you did when your mother told you
what it took to be a woman in this life.

 

Go Ahead, See Where It Goes

Dove
Rita Dove

“There are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints.”

Rita Dove

Demeter’s Prayer to Hades

by Rita Dove

This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.
To understand each desire and its edge,
to know we are responsible for the lives
we change. No faith comes without cost,
no one believes without dying.
Now for the first time
the trail you have planted,
what ground opened to waste,
though you dreamed a wealth
of flowers.
  .                 . There are no curses, only mirrors
hold up to the souls of gods and mortals.
And so I give up this fate, too.
Believe in yourself,
go ahead – see where it gets you.


I got shivers when I read for the first time Rita Dove’s poem titled Sonnet, which I have shared below.   It cut into me, the words laceratingly familiar as I read them.  Does that ever happen to you with poetry? The hair on the back of your ,neck goes up after the second line, you suddenly feel naked before the author’s words, as if they had burst in on you in a dressing room at Macy’s by accident, witnessing all your humanness and then had the audacity to write a poem about it.

My friend Liz described to me her thrill in hearing Auden lecture in person at the University of Minnesota and the lightning bolt that experience created in her mind. She had been trained in college to think that poetry was something academics interpreted and then they told you what to think. Auden declared, use your own brain, let poetry speak to you in your own voice and make of it what you will. (A bit ironic coming from a retired Presbyterian minister who was already ordained at the time, since wasn’t the reformation about not needing an elite group of academics to interpret what you find sacred?) But we all learn through parables in our lives at our own pace and at the proper time.

Rita Dove’s sonnet, Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ cements in my mind my feeling that these sonnets about Persephone are not solely about parenting in the traditional sense, except the parenting we all do of ourselves.  The truth is, we never truly parent our children, we live by example. Our children have their own minds, their own filters, their own experiences. We pretend we help them grow when in reality we feed and clothe and shelter them and what they learn of love and life they learn by watching us how we parent ourselves. If we parent ourselves with wisdom, forgiveness and compassion they likely will be influenced by the example. If we parent with excessive anxiety, then do not be surprised if they follow suit. I learned as much from my parents humbly admitting their mistakes than from the 98% of their lives they lived in prosperity. If we parent ourself with consistent recklessness, stupidity and anger, they will either by seduced by its ugliness or become orphans to find their own way.  So like Dove says – “believe in yourself – see where it goes.”  Parent yourself in ways, you will be honored if your children follow suit, and if nothing else, “one learns to walk by walking.”


Sonnet

by Rita Dove

Nothing can console me.  You may bring silk
to make skin sigh, dispense yellow roses
in the matter of ripened dignitaries.
You can tell me repeatedly
I am unbearable (and I know this):
still, nothing turns the gold into corn
nothing is sweet to the tooth crushing in.

I’ll not ask for the impossible
One learns to walk by walking.
In time I will forget this empty brimming.
I may laugh again at
a bird, perhaps, chucking the nest –
but it will not be happiness,
for I have known that.

This Is Important, Stop Fooling Around!

Rita Dove
Rita Dove (1952 –

The poetry that sustains me is when I feel that, for a minute, the clouds have parted and I’ve seen ecstasy or something.

Rita Dove

Persephone, Falling

by Rita Dove

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.

No one! She had strayed from the herd.
(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.


There are several well-reasoned analysis of this poem which say that it is about parenting and cautioning children about the dangers of strangers, with Hades in his carriage from the underworld a pretty grandiose stranger. But that is not what this poem speaks to me.  I find in her words an artist’s admission to the lure of poetry and writing. The splendid terribleness of having to let go and fall and fall into your own pit of your imagination. And then find in that falling the beautiful truth of whatever it is that you are going to write about and the courage to share.

The goddess Persephone is a crazy metaphor to begin with in shaping this sonnet.  She is the goddess of the plant kingdom and prosperity of the harvest.  Yet she is kidnapped by Hades into the underworld to be his wife, bringing famine to the world as nothing can grow where no light reaches. There is not a true poet alive who feels they have any choice but to write even if they starve in some ways for it. Their purpose in life has been kidnapped in search of the right words, to write words, to impart the intangible in a way that they themselves and possibly their readers can grasp ecstasy for a moment.

Artists, teachers, clergy and everyone else who peddles in matters of the soul eventually have to give themselves wholly over to the pursuit of their vocation, even if it means entrapment in a place that does not always serve their best interest.  It is not a choice that can be made halfway. You either commit and succeed or are reticent and fail. Hades’ Pitch, the sonnet below, I think is a continuation of this admission, that in finding her artistic voice, she had to accept the lure of fire and darkness that comes with commitment, passion and desire.  A poet experiences unpleasantness, the process of writing comes easy to some, but for most is hard work and not everything they are going to write is going to be about subjects that want to visit or revisit. Great art sometimes is about scars or leaves them in its creation. Fisherman have callouses on their hands. Writers have callouses on their reputations, for half the critics will evaluate you for your best work and the other half judge you only by your worst.

I love the quote from Audre Lorde below and believe it to be true of all great artists like Rita Dove as well; “that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.”  What are you teaching or creating today to continue being?  

Audre Lorde

I am Black, Woman, and Poet—fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is a part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’

Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.

Last spring, under a National Endowment to the Arts Grand, I spent some time as Poet in Residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where I became convinced, anti-academic though I am, that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.

At the City University of New York, I teach young people.


Hades’ Pitch

by Rita Dove 

 

If I could just touch your ankle, he whispers, there
on the inside, above the bone—leans closer,
breath of lime and pepper—I know I could
make love to you.
She considers
this, secretly thrilled, though she wasn’t quite
sure what he meant. He was good
with words, words that went straight to the liver.
Was she falling for him out of sheer boredom—
cooped up in this anything-but-humble dive, stone
gargoyles leering and brocade drapes licked with fire?
Her ankle burns where he described it. She sighs
just as her mother above ground stumbles, is caught
by the fetlock—bereft in an instant—
while the Great Man drives home his desire.