Friday, April 30, 2010


Opelika, Alabama, 1977:
My first day of training, I faint. All week long in the trauma unit, I gag and throw up. I sway, like an old drunk, at the fraying edge of consciousness. By the second week, I learn to stand upright, to summon my senses back. I learn to make it through the autopsies and the rotting limbs where gangrene has set in, to make it through the sweet stench of burned flesh and gunshot wounds, to keep the stomach from its uprising and revolt. I keep a peppermint, sweet host, under my tongue to calm the acrid taste of bile that rises in my throat. After two months on the wards, I can look at almost anything and not flinch.
I do not flinch when the murdered woman is brought in one night, her tongue so swollen from the strangling it hangs blackly out of her mouth. Nor do I grimace when the burned boy is admitted, unable even to cry in his pain – the vocal cords scorched, black as coal – his upper body singed where his father set him afire for disobeying. And I do not flinch now facing the thousand other unimaginable things that one human being can do to another, and not for whatever cruelty or happenstance or rotten twist of fate has brought them to the ward, or to the E.R., or to the morgue and, thus, into my care. I learn to look at anything and keep my face from torquing in horror or revulsion, no matter how twisted or charred, no matter how blown open the body might be where a bullet has bored through it. I am tempered steel. I am gun-metal gray. Nothing moves my controlled countenance.
Only once is it otherwise: I lift my face from the hospital sink after morning report and I see, suddenly, the empty in my eyes. There she is before me, undeniable: my numb twin, exhausted and glass-brittle. My doppelganger. Someone who has given up on things. Someone who lives in a besieged country.
Each night, I enter again the dim underworld of the graveyard shift where I tend to the sick, to the wounded and dying. I walk up and down the dim-lit corridors, the fresh wax gleaming underfoot, the soles of my shoes sticking and squealing like some small protest. The ones who can sleep, sleep. The others merely endure, somehow, the long night and its pain-riddled hours. The rest of this town sleeps, blissful and exhausted and unaware.
And me? I am the Watcher. I have the map in hand. I know where each sleeper reposes in the dark ward. I know the precise thorn of their pain and the trellis of the body upon which it is hung. I take my penlight in hand, checking each bed, taking in hand each wrist, my fingers feeling for a pulse. I am their best angel each night, their guardian, the one who hovers, the one who keeps vigilant watch, the most faithful of faithfuls. The one who changes nothing. The one who cannot save them. The one who cannot even save herself.
Only when the sun comes up do I leave them behind, in the care of others, and I enter again the daylit world.
How sweet it seems today, the warm blanket of my ordinary life around me, the smell of strong coffee brewing, my groggy children rousing themselves from sleep, the baby’s milky first tooth finally in, the man I married seven years ago – the man I no longer can say I really know or love – leaving for work, leaving me to the wake of whatever washes over me there in my own kitchen, the whole morning slow and bathwater-warm around me. And always, in the background, tugging at me: that shadow-world I’ve left behind for a little while in order to take up, once more, this thing I sometimes call “my life.”
Two kingdoms I inhabit. One, a kingdom of darkness and the brittle stars of the maimed and sick, the halt, the infirm, the wrongly-born and badly-made, and those who are dying. And the other, at sun-up: a kingdom of spilled cereal and sticky hands, of diapers and detergent, riddles and nursery rhymes, Big Bird and Mickey Mouse, make-believe and wild rumpus, playgrounds and grape popsicles. And all the while, somewhere between the two kingdoms: a seam – holding, barely – slightly parting at the precise place, the exact latitude and longitude, where I depart one kingdom and enter the other.
In my ordinary life, there are people – parents, friends, family, neighbors – people who I once moved easily among and loved and who might love me still I think, good people with whom I’ll never again wholly belong. There are cautious animals – stray cats, a neighbor's mangy hound, two aloof deer who come to graze on windfall apples at the edge of the field – who do not seem afraid of me, who allow me to approach them. It feels like a gift, their acceptance of me, raw as I am, when they venture near me, a brief communion between exiles who do not speak each other's languages. But they are apparitions, ghosts who appear and then disappear. Each day now, I am more at peace with solitude, with the forest of pine and sycamore just beyond my back yard, with the fogged-in meadow of milkweed beyond it where a single gnarled tree stands, twisted by wind and split by lightning. Mostly I feel a deep relief flood through me in my daylight life, like someone who was to be executed but is suddenly, inexplicably pardoned. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it "peace," this thing I feel, but whatever it is called, it is surely the same stunned thing which must have washed over Persephone each spring when she left the underworld to re-enter the time of blooming and light. It is a peace, a relief, tinged with the knowledge that the underworld is still there, waiting for your return. Sometimes am I a little envious of the mud-brown river that runs fast as it can into and out of this town.
Words have forsaken me now: what words can frame them, those sufferers, what words can make them visible to those who inhabit this ordinary, lit world, a world that goes on untroubled by what relentlessly troubles these others? I do not even know, anymore, how to pray. How would I begin? And to Whom would I address my prayers?
Scripture says that if no one will say the truth of what is, even the stones will cry out.
Tell me, if you can: does the blade of grass, in its own green tongue, beseech God on their behalf? Does the clover cry out for mercy? Does the kicked stone weep? And the bunched forget-me-nots at the wild edge of these woods today - to whom do they make such an earnest blue entreaty? And what of the vines: see how they run up the trees in terror. Are they also a prayer, reaching skyward?
If so, let them pray.
As for me, I will watch children play today in the summer-scorched fields. I will tie on my apron and braid my hair and shake off my shoes. I will consider again the lilies which do not toil nor weep. I will keep my eye on the sparrow who has made her nest in the dead bough of the twisted apple-tree. I will study the cat who is stalking bugs in the weed-riddled yard. I will let the neighbor’s bony hound sleep in the cool dirt under my back stoop, his only escape from the fury of his drunk master. I will live this day to its end, drinking it like a cup of cold water on a hot day. I will give myself over to this other, lesser work. I will stake the tomato plants upright and give the garden snakes a wide berth. I will sweep spiders from this splintered porch. I will fold the towels and hang quilts to dry on the line. Also the clean sheets which will fly all day in the wind outside my window like some last white flags of my surrender.

Friday, April 23, 2010


The God-Tree

The Peaceable Cows, waiting in their fields

The birdhouse, waiting for tenants

Blooming Tree

First green of spring

Save me, O God, for the waters are come into my soul. I sink in mire where there is no standing. I am come deep into waters where floods overrun me.

-- Psalm 60: 1 – 3

Spring. Season when all the dormant things rise again, in flagrant color, from the warming earth. Season when the light returns. Season when frigid ground thaws and parts its bars in order to allow the first daffodils and tulips to enter. Demeter welcoming the stolen daughter home again from the underworld. Season of ripening bloominess, the air fragrant with something like promise – and rich in the pollen that bees love and which those with allergies do not love so much. And always, there is that Midas-touch over everything: spring's gold, dusting the porches and cars with a fine yellow haze.

In the small town where I live now, people come out after the long winter, into their yards to work and plant. The women hang laundry on the line again and beat the dusty rugs with steely mallets. Menfolk hang over fences to chat with their neighbors and tell each other how long the winter seemed. How the wood ran out before the cold did. Children grab their father's screw-drivers and punch holes in the lids of bell-jars, hoping twilight will bring the lightning bugs which they will chase, barefoot, over the twilit lawns. In the cool of evenings, the runners emerge again in their spandex leggings and trainers, earphones and iPods in place, jogging along the sidewalks and roadways where, not long ago, an icy slush was an impediment to running. Treadmills and home gymnasiums sulk, neglected, in basements: chrome and flywheels and LCD displays are no match for sunshine and gritty air and the heady smell of loamy soil. The town's long-lived widows stroll, arm in arm, through town, admiring the gardens, speaking of their lost husbands, sometimes complaining about how difficult their men were in life, openly aching for them in that way only the long-married can ache when a spouse passes first.

At the edge of town, farmland is being tilled and prepared for planting. The pungent attar of manure blows into town and wafts into the open windows, a fragrant mix of decomp and decay and sweet rot. Even the young boy-cat senses something is changing. His old companion is gone now and, in the heady aroma of the fields and flower beds, he has begun to lose the scent of the old cat. He seems lost and baffled as he walks from chair to rocker to bed, to sniff at all the things where the old blind cat lay for the past year. He is beginning to forget. When the scent goes, there will be little left to remind him. So the young male cat has taken to watching the comings and goings of the birds as they fly by the summer porch with twigs and dirty string, lifting up into the bloomy limbs of the tree, disappearing into the newly-hung birdhouse. He has that look on his face as they wheel past. You know the look I mean: old look of the predator when the prey draws near. Hunger.

To shake loose whatever winter-grief still lingers in me, I decide to drive outside of town, to the open fields, to see if the lambs and kids and calves are out in the fields now with their mothers. I will make a point today to overlook the red-tagged ears of the adult animals among them: a solemn reminder that spring - the season of birth and rebirth - is also the season of slaughter.

My grandmother told me a story once of the Caston men when they'd first come to America. They were farmers. Apparently, they weren't very good businessmen though since they'd bought the land without seeing it first. When they'd arrived, the stony land they'd purchased was crowded with hardwoods that had to be cleared before the fields could be tilled and planted. So began the long weeks of back-breaking cutting and clearing of the land. You couldn't feed a family if you had a proclivity for sparing juniper or oak, and you couldn't feed a family on scrub pine. And feeding the family was what mattered most to them in those days, fleeing, as they were, the old hard poverty of the mother-country.

But, as in the old country, one tree in each field was spared the ax. Each man, no matter how large or small the field he owned, left one tree standing. Not a fruit tree. Not a tree which would provide shade on a hot August day. Not a blooming tree, pleasing to the eye. The solitary tree had to be particular, and each man searched diligently for the proper tree: the God-Tree, they called it quietly. Reverently. From a distance.

The ideal tree would be damaged. Twisted. Gnarled. Grotesque. If that man was fortunate, it would be marred by catastrophe. Perhaps by a lightning strike, split in two and charred. Or by pestilence, stripped-free forever of its greenery, its tap-root gone. Such a tree was the god-sign and it alone determined the field and everything around it. At a safe distance from it, the barn would be built, and the house, and all its outbuildings. The scarred tree – the ruined tree – would serve as a "draw" for lightning. It had an affinity for catastrophe – the scar was proof of that. Everything else was safe so long as a respectful distance was kept from the "draw."

I find that tree today again – the God-tree – in almost every tilled field I visit. One bare, lone tree. Dead-center of the field. Standing solitary, nothing else near. Not even a fence-post. Farmhouses stand far-off, intact. Fences keep a respectful distance. Only the hawks and buzzards take up watch there. Sometimes a few crows. And a long silence, like the silence of a graveyard. Something weary and accustomed to its bleak habitation.

I think, sometimes, I am that god-tree, as a writer and as a woman. Some days, there is a slight scent of old brimstone in my hair. Of fire and something singed. Of wrecked things. Of old scars, mine and others. I am the thing set apart from the normal, the beautiful, the longed-for ones. I am the "draw" for catastrophe. The one who insures the safety of the others. The solitary one, the sentinel at the center of the unsafe places. A warning. A reminder. A monument. One does not, after all, live for many years tending the sick and wounded and dying, and walk away unmarred. . . .

Sunday, April 11, 2010

For Whom The Bell: Good Friday, 2010

My friend, Lucille, had gone, for a semester or two, to teach graduate students in poetry at Columbia University. As her time there was drawing to an end, one of the young women in her workshop offered her some advice: "You should stop writing about slavery and being Black and start writing about something more relevant."

I live in a town of bells. I have always lived in a town of bells, and they have rung in the precise hours and half-hours of my life, both in childhood and now in what I hope are the middle years of a long life. Even when the town was dark with no power, or frozen into place in winter, the bells sounded with their strange music which reverberated long after the ringing had stopped. I can be sitting on the summer porch with my husband now, talking amiably of the quotidian pleasures of the day, or reading alone, wholly-lost in a book, but when the bells ring, I am aware: one hour has ended – with all its pain and pleasure, all its joy and sorrow – and the next one is beginning.

In times like these – war-torn times, tattered-glory times, times when the old dog-eared quarrels are returned to again and again, time of blood-feuds and gang-wars, times of the pink slip and the lay-off, times of the still-born and the miscarried and the ill-conceived, times of bad news blowing to shore and swamping the city, times of the earth shifting wildly in its tectonic bed – in times like these, it seems sometimes like the poets have gone a little insane, or at least a little irrelevant, locked as they are, into their work or gathering in workshops, intently extolling the merits of well-forged metaphor or getting all fire-eyed about enjambment and "the line." How obsessively they work, in the halls of academia, to perfect their poems. To make them less subjective. To put them through the white-hot forge of "objectivity" and purge them of the too-specific, the too-personal and too-emotional.

As if.

As if anything brought forth from such imperfect creatures could be scoured-clean of the historical moment in time in which the poet has lived, as if it could be swept clean of all the minute imperfections, the little flaws, ragged edges, fraying seams that are a person's life. Honestly, sometimes composing a poem seems, to me, a gesture of self-indulgence – stern evidence of the old "art-for-art's-sake" we've often been accused of – someone fiddling while the city burns.

I am aware, tonight, of the ridiculous figure I would seem – were anyone looking – hunched here at my desk, smudging out words, mumbling to myself, scribbling in the margins, rearranging rhythms by lamplight, working and reworking the poem towards music, relentlessly nudging it towards the unsayable something I sense behind the words while the little town sleeps and dreams beneath the streetlights, while the new moon fingers the blossoming tree below my window and, far-off in the inky blackness of deep space, the stars flicker on and off. When I pause and look up from my solitary work, I can almost hear the Void yawning out there beyond the stars; it's enough to send any poet, shuddering, back to the white page. But it isn't the Great Silence out there that makes me hesitate tonight. It isn't even the chronic schizophrenia I step into and out of as I move back and forth between my public teaching life and my solitary writing life. What startles me tonight is the town's church bell ringing in the hour: one a.m.

I think of other writers, in their own moments in history, who must have hunched over the page like this, troubled by the world, troubled by what to do or say, knowing or not knowing their places in it all. Neruda. Ahkmatova. Hemingway. And tonight I think too of my dead friend, Lucille, who was also a poet – a friend who, one sunny spring morning sang along with me all the words perfectly – not one missed word – to the Methodist Church bells in that way only a good ex-Baptist can:

Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, that calls me from a world of care. . . .

I also remember tonight – with an old sadness rising – how, on that particular morning, one of the "cares" of our day had been that stubborn waitress in a local restaurant who would NOT refill Lucille's coffee cup when she stopped by the table to refill mine, a woman who had made a show of turning her back to my friend and asking me what she wanted for breakfast. I am remembering how Lucille's face fell and how her eyes dropped to her silverware, the way a chastised child might look. I recall, too, the swift up-flare of anger in me then, that old anger from my childhood in the South. And I remember my response to that waitress, "She speaks, you know. Ask her yourself." Thus adding fuel to the fire of the incendiary moment we were in, not really helping anything. Pushed into a corner again and swinging my way out of it.

Isn't this what my friend had been trying to say, to talk about, in those poems she wrote? To convey a lifetime of moments like this one. To forgive, even. To understand and move through. All her life. Maybe this was why people shifted uncomfortably in the rooms and auditoriums when she read her Memphis poems, when she made it so clear, so evident, that her people were still living in the hard wake of those old inequities and histories and bigotry that the old ancestors had lived in. Maybe it was why that young woman believed she could tell Lucille that her writing was becoming "irrelevant." It's too simple, sometimes, to see Lucille as an exception to the life her people had lived, were still tangled in, and too unnerving to think that she also endured what they had. Many times. I don't believe for a moment that this was the only time my friend ever had such moments in her life. It just happened to be one I'd been, suddenly, privy to.

We'd finished our breakfast quietly then and had gone out again into Lexington Park. We'd been driving, stunned and uncomfortable, towards campus when the church bells had begun. We'd both gone stock-still, startled by the ringing. Affected, as my grandmother was wont to put it. Lucille had started singing along to the old hymn and then I'd joined in, too: two women in a little blue car, singing. When the bells had gone silent again, we'd laughed at ourselves. (We could do that, too.) And when we'd finished laughing, we'd talked about how poetry had become, for us, the only prayer we had left that seemed at all redemptive, that poems we read and loved had become – somewhere along the way in our sometimes-difficult, sometimes-incomprehensible lives – a place where we were sustained, a place in which we could fully live, in darkness and in light. And we've had some good company in that strange country.

Then, in some fit of silliness, which happened a lot when we were together, I shouted in mock Southern Baptist fervor from behind the wheel of that blue Escort, "Oh, God-bell, set me ringing!" And Lucille had, uncharacteristically, leaned out the window and shouted, "Me too! Me too!"

Poets like the two of us, I suspect, were not destined to be reliable or functional as metronomes. Nor, I suspect, did we really wish our lives to be the steady tock-tocking by which others ordered their lives, setting time in place, arranging the tedious schedules of coming and going neatly. I think people like us are more kindred to bells and tuning forks: mostly idle, mostly sitting peaceably by waiting for something to set us thrumming again, whatever that particular "something" happened to be. We took whatever came to us. We were grateful, even when that "whatever" seemed more a mixed blessing than anything else.

Every time a bell began, we were hearing, I think, something familial, something set off in us by that old resonance of metal to metal. A bell, after all, is not plastic. Nor is its clapper wooden. Metal striking metal. Something hollowed out, reverberating with the striking. Something shuddering and resonating wildly to being struck or pulled or tipped into the air. That is the kind of poets we were, are. It's one of the ways we recognized our kindredness to each other, how we knew what manner of thing we were, of what we were made, where we were bound and to what.