Some White Folks Have Blind Souls

marilyn Nelson
Marilyn Nelson

A Wreath for Emmett Till (Excerpt)

IV

by Marilyn Nelson

Emmett Till’s name still catches in my throat,
like syllables waylaid in a stutterer’s mouth.
A fourteen-year-old stutterer, in the South
to visit relatives and to be taught
the family’s ways. His mother had finally bought
that White Sox cap; she’d made him swear an oath
to be careful around white folks. She’s told him the truth
of many a Mississippi anecdote:
Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase
she’d packed dungarees, T-shirts, underwear,
and comic books. She’d given him a note
for the conductor, waved to his chubby face,
wondered if he’d remember to brush his hair.
Her only child. A body left to bloat.


It’s a fair question to ask, how far have we really come as a country in 65 years? It’s a question that haunts white Americans, those of us that would like to believe we are not part of the problem, which means, we are part of the problem. For when the privileges and dividends for being white are so pervasive that they cease to be visible to us, we have to ask the question to ourselves again, how far have we really come?  I don’t know how far we’ve come, but its obvious to the entire world, we have a long, long, long way to go here in Minneapolis.

“What is gentlest in love is love’s violence.
Losing yourself in love, you reach love’s goal.
Love makes you suffer, as love makes you whole.
Love steals your everything and makes you rich.
Love is both meaningless and poetry.
Captured by love, by love you are set free.”

― Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson’s award winning crown of sonnets titled A Wreath for Emmett Till is a masterpiece of writing.  Nelson has had a long and successful career as a writer and educator; everything from novels, to children’s books, to historical fiction, translations and poetry.  In 2014 she published “How I Discovered Poetry” a book dedicated to her love affair with words. I would encourage you to seek out the entire text of A Wreath For Emmett Till. It is one of the finest sonnet sequences ever written.  Here’s a video of her reading the two sonnet excerpt on today’s blog.


V

Your only child, a body thrown to bloat,
mother of sorrows, of justice denied.
Surely you must have thought of suicide,
seeing his gray flesh, chains around his throat.
Surely you didn’t know you would devote
the rest of your changed life to dignified
public remembrance of how Emmett died,
innocence slaughtered by the hands of hate.
If sudden loving light proclaimed you blest
would you bow your head in humility,
your healed heart overflow with gratitude?
Would you say yes, like the mother of Christ?
Or would you say no to your destiny,
mother of a boy martyr, if you could?

 

Such Simple Love

Thomas Mcgrath
Thomas McGrath (1916 – 1990)

Such Simple Love

by Thomas McGrath

All night long I hear the sleepers toss
Between the darkened window and the wall.
The madman’s whimper and the lover’s voice,
The worker’s whisper and the sick child’s call—
Knowing them all

I’d walk a mile, maybe, hearing some cat
Crying its guts out, to throttle it by hand,
Such simple love I had. I wished I might—
Or God might—answer each call in person and
Each poor demand.

Well, I’d have been better off sleeping myself.
These fancies had some sentimental charm,
But love without direction is a cheap blanket
And even if it did no one any harm,
No one is warm.

 


 

Sometimes

by Thomas McGrath

When I take your hand
It is like a door, opening …

A garden . . .
A road leading out through a
. . Mediterranean landscape . . .

Finally: a smell of salt,
the port,
A ship leaving for strange and
. .distant countries

Illumine Our Tempestuous Day

Frank Yerby
Frank Yerby (1916 – 1991)

 

Sonnet: England in 1819

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1922)

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who
Through public scorn,–mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless–a book sealed;
A Senate, Time’s worst statute unrepealed,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

 


Not much has changed in 200 years.  “Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know” is the exact same disenfranchisement millions around the globe have felt in the protests following George Floyd’s murder.  It in no way excuses the vandalism, looting and burning of buildings that are largely small business owners and community resources. More violence won’t move us forward. Change is going to have to come from soul searching and willingness to reinvent ourselves as a society where inclusion and common goals might mean real equity and freedom comes at the cost of some having less so that as a whole we have more.

In searching for poetry that helps me process what has played out in the past 10 days, poetry that bridges the impassioned, courageous, realistic and hopeful with anger and righteous indignation, I stumbled across this poem by Frank Yerby, a writer known more for his novels than poetry.  I was struck by the poem below.  The third stanza speaks to me. I think many of our brains have been boiling with injustice and insanity.

Yerby has the distinction of being the first African American author to reach 1 million sales mark in 1946 with his southern historical romance novel, The Foxes of Harrow.  In all he wrote 33 novels, many of them historical fiction and romances. Yerby would break another barrier in 1946, when he became the first African-American to have a book purchased for screen adaptation by a Hollywood studio. 20th Century Fox optioned Foxes and the film of the same name was released in 1947 starring Rex Harrison and Maureen O’Hara.

I really enjoyed Yerby’s poem The Fishes and The Poet’s Hands.  There is a lot going on in it. The gruesome description of Shelley’s funeral pyre, contrasted with the brutality of racism and state sanctioned violence against African Americans is striking. The poem builds across the three stanzas. I agree, that this is not a time for “pretty rhyming words.”  But resilience comes in some part from finding modest continuity in the midst of choas; the cup of tea brewed on the battle field, a willingness to find civility in the middle of barbarity. Call me shallow, but I’ll continue enjoying a little rhyming poetry, despite the more weighty problems facing my community, simply to renew my sense of hope, that there is still beauty in the world and art and words.  And even if in the end the battle between the elite and the oppressed has not changed in 200 years, we can do our best to move forward and keep hope alive through art.

 

george-floyd-art-mural-minneapolis
George Floyd mural in South Minneapolis at the site where he lost his life. 

 

The Fishes and the Poet’s Hands

by Frank Yerby

I

They say that when they burned young Shelley’s corpse
(For he was drowned, you know, and washed ashore
With hands and face quite gone—the fishes had,
It seems, but small respect for Genius which
Came clothed in common flesh) the noise his brains
Made as they boiled and seethed within his skull
Could well be heard five yards away. At least
No one can hear mine as they boil; but then
He could not feel his burn; and so I think
He had the best of it at that. Don’t you?

II

Now all the hungry broken men stand here
Beside my bed like ghosts and cry: “Why don’t
You shout our wrong aloud? Why are you not
Our voice, our sword? For you are of our blood:
You’ve seen us beaten, lynched, degraded, starved;
Men must be taught that other men are not
Mere pawns in some gigantic game in which
The winner takes the gold, the land, the work,
The breath, the heart, and soul of him who loses!”
I watch them standing there until my brain
Begins to burn within my head again—
(As Shelley’s burned—poor, young dead Shelley whom
The fishes ate) then I get up and write
A very pretty sonnet, nicely rhymed
About my latest love affair, how sad
I am because some dear has thrown me for
A total loss. (But Shelley had me there,
All his affairs turned out quite well indeed;
Harriet in the river drowned for love
Of him; and Mary leaving Godwin’s house
To follow where he led—quite well—indeed!)

III

You see this is ironical and light
Because I am so sick, so hurt inside,
I’m tired of pretty rhyming words when all
The land where I was born is soaked in tears
And blood, and black and utter hopelessness.
Now I would make a new, strong, bitter song,
And hurl it in the teeth of those I hate—
I would stand tall and proud against their blows,
Knowing I could not win, I would go down
Grandly as an oak goes down, and leave
An echo of the crash, at least, behind.
(So Shelley lived — and so at last, he died.
The fishes ate his glorious hands; and all
That mighty bulk of brain boiled when they burned him!)

In Need of Forgiveness

Minneapolis-riot
Minneapolis riots in the aftermath of George Floyd’s Murder by Minneapolis Police

 

In Need of Forgiveness

By T. A. Fry

Needle-fall in May, beneath the white pine
In the yard, golden in the sun, some die
As this year’s new growth begins. A sign
Something’s renewed this spring, as I try
To make sense of a senseless killing;
George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police,
Uncaring, racist, not one of them willing
To help a man begging for them to cease
Smothering him to death. Minneapolis cops
Deputized by our collective white privilege
Have scarred us all because we failed to stop
The apathy that formed this dreadful wedge.
Let me be first in need of forgiveness.
Committed to change,  God as my witness.

Take Corners on Two Wheels

MacNeice

Better authentic mammon than a bogus god.

Louis MacNeice

 

Sunday Morning

by Louis MacNeice

Down the road someone is practicing scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar;
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,
And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,
Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.
But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Opens its eight bells out, skulls’ mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.


Sunlight in the Garden

by Louis MacNiece

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

We Must Meet The Common Foe!

Claude McKay
Claude McKay (1889 – 1948)

“Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.”

Martin Luther King

If We Must Die

by Claude McKay

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

 


It is difficult to not be bitter the past few days. There has been no tranquility this week in Minneapolis, just collective grief and anger over the tragic death of George Floyd.  I can not make sense of this violence. It is too senseless. Why did this happen? Why does it keep happening? What has to change for police offers in Minneapolis and else where around the country to stop killing unarmed black men? What has to change in the hearts of men to stop being afraid and start being brave enough to care about the humanity of each and every person in their community?

Interviews with George Floyd’s loved ones have shared that he was proud to call Minneapolis home.  I have been proud to call Minneapolis and Minnesota my home, but I am not proud today. I am ashamed that this city and state are in the global headlines for the vilest of reasons – violence, racism, police brutality, police indifference, and injustice.  I hope one day that we can restore that pride, by making genuine strides to address these issues to address the injustices of equality that plague our society.

Saying I am sorry is not enough.  This community did not do what it should have done; value and protect Floyd’s life.  We can hold the men responsible, we can act towards justice but it’s not enough.  We need change.  We need to demand fundamental change. I am appalled that the policemen sworn to protect and serve do not understand the concepts of –  protect and serve.  I am deeply saddened for the family and friends of George Floyd. I am sad for this community, sad that violence by white men in positions of power steal from all of us; a sense of safety, a sense of collective good will, a measure of our self respect.

Martin Luther King is quoted as saying:

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Today I’m crawling, having been brought to my knees in sadness and shame.   But I hope, somehow, we can keep moving forward as a community and as a country and as a global community.  George Floyd deserved better.  We can do better.

 

Turn Away No More

Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience_copy_AA_The_Voice_of_the_Ancient_Bard
Songs of Innocence by William Blake

Hear The Voice of The Bard

by William Blake

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, and Future see;
Whose ears have heard
the Holy Word
That walked among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed Soul
And weeping in the evening dew
That might control
the starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

“O earth, O earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
and [the morn]
rises from the slumbering mass.

“Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
the watery shore,
Is given thee till break of day.”

 


To The Evening Star

by William Blake

THOU fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And then the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.

 

 

This Halo We Discover

soldiers-washing-1927
Soldiers Washing (1927) Stanley Spencer

Soldiers Washing 

by Ricardo Pau-Llosa (1954 – 

   after the painting by Stanley Spencer

Even washing is a task, in war and daily
life. The warm and pour, the fresh linen,
the hourglass of soap in its melt telling
us how our tired flesh gleams to fiction
renewal. Time is at war. We are meant to lose
that we may grasp what we know: the waste
of passioned effort. The soldier nearest to us
dunks his face in the bowl, a murky foretaste
of baptismal death. This halo we discover
from which he’ll surely rise, suspender cords
rhyming the sink. Next to him another
wrings the towel and turns his head toward
Bellona. Not incongruous. The patroness,
too, of the trench of days and the hearth’s duress.

 


There is a different feel to Memorial Day this year, a bit more melancholy, like there is a collective mourning that goes far beyond remembrances of veterans in our families and communities, but an appreciation and sorrow for the disconnect from the recent past to our current present. Grief is a part of life, loss is a part of life, and allowing ourselves to feel the full range of our emotions is an important part of mental health.

I picked the poem Soldiers Washing by Pau-Llosa because of how the act of washing has taken on a different meaning since the pandemic.  A habit I have gotten into is washing my hands as I enter the house. The act of hand washing has started to take on a new ritual, a chance to pause, reflect and be grateful.  It is an opportunity to be in the present.

The poem above makes more sense if you have a proper context for the word Bellona as the ancient Roman goddess of war. On this memorial day,  are you reflecting?  Where are your thoughts? What are you mourning? What are you celebrating? For what are you grateful?

Bruxelles_Bellone_905
Bellona, Goddess of War

 


The Departed

by Edgar Albert Guest (1881 – 1959)

IF no one ever went ahead,
If we had seen no friend depart
And mourned him for a while as dead,
How great would be our fear to start.

If no one for us led the way,
No loved one, garbed in angel white
Stood there, a welcome word to say,
Then we should fear the Heavenly flight.

If we should never say ‘good bye,’
Should never shed the parting tear,
We’d face the journey to the sky
In horrible despair and fear.

It is because our friends have gone
And left us in this vale of breath,
Because of those who’ve journeyed on,
That we can bravely smile at death

Win Thy Happier Fate

Bronte Sisters
Bronte sisters: Anne, Emily and Charlotte (left to right)

“Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”

Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855)

Sleep Brings No Joy To Me

by Emily Bronte (1818 – 1848)

Sleep brings no joy to me,
Remembrance never dies;
My soul is given to misery
And lives in sighs.

Sleep brings no rest to me;
The shadows of the dead
My waking eyes may never see
Surround my bed.

Sleep brings no hope to me;
In sounder sleep they come.
And with their doleful imagery
Deepen the gloom

Sleep brings no strength to me,
No power renewed to brave:
I only sail a wilder sea,
A darker wave.

Sleep brings no friend to me
To soothe and aid to bear;
They all gaze, oh, how scornfully,
And I despair.

Sleep brings no wish to knit
My harassed heart beneath:
My only wish is to forget
In the sleep of death.

 


 

Peace

by John Keats (1795 – 1821)

O PEACE! and dost thou with thy presence bless
The dwellings of this war-surrounded Isle;
Soothing with placid brow our late distress,
Making the triple kingdom brightly smile?
Joyful I hail thy presence; and I hail
The sweet companions that await on thee;
Complete my joy let not my first wish fail,
Let the sweet mountain nymph thy favourite be,
With England’s happiness proclaim Europa’s Liberty.
O Europe! let not sceptred tyrants see
That thou must shelter in thy former state;
Keep thy chains burst, and boldly say thou art free;
Give thy kings law leave not uncurbed the great ;
So with the horrors past thou’lt win thy happier fate!

In Forgetfulness Divine

download (3)
John Keats

I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.

John Keats

On Sleep

by John Keats (1795 – 1821)

O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,
And seal the hushèd casket of my soul.


A Long, Long Sleep

by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

A long — long Sleep — A famous — Sleep —
That makes no show for Morn —
By Stretch of Limb — or stir of Lid —
An independent One —

Was ever idleness like This?
Upon a Bank of Stone
To bask the Centuries away —
Nor once look up — for Noon