New poetry by Lynne Ellis, Gautami Govindrajan, Lee Peterson, Mary Margaret Freeman and Mary Ann Honaker
Maybe to be human means to hold everything at once. Like somehow we have to hold a newspaper and all of its chronicled tragedies. Somehow we must keep and share this knowledge. The challenge, I believe, is to still hold compassion, too.
I’d like to invite you to read far-ranging poetry below, that takes us from the Covid-19 health crisis to the reverberations of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Srebrenica massacre to digital and personal discussions of Israel and Palestine and more, to our collective history, to our earth, to beyond the screen, perhaps to where you are holding a cup of tea, warmed by the music of these words.
I also have an invitation to the poets who are local to the Bay Area. We are co-hosting a digital event on September 15 in collaboration with Aunt Lute Books on the themes of housing, gentrification, and homelessness in this region. If you’re interested in being one of our paid readers, please reply to this email with a sample of your relevant work. Let me know if you have any questions, too.
Poets Reading the News
Poem At the End of Isolation
It was too large to imagine.
At that height, the oceans looked like a torn hospital gown.
If we had been twin fireflies
on an otherwise dark planet, a camera could have time-lapsed us
in solar orbit—one bright enduring thread, a completed circuit
—a rotary phone cord.
When we looked into daylight, illusory gnats
climbed over book paper,
when we looked to the page those insects jumped
into anemic sky
—sky like the Gulf Coast in a lost era of travel—
where no-see-ums feasted
on our skin and Hitchcocked the porch screens.
Each morning, we walked past that symphony score
of bugs, out to the dwarf waves of the Atlantic.
We lived with a red and angry landscape on our legs.
And oh, how we thought we’d itch
forever, as if time could continue on through histamine.
There was a sea inside
our blood, its salt changed as our days accumulated.
Spring brought chaos to the garden worms—little earth-swimmers
—our spades drove into healthy piles of dirt, upending
the architecture of their lives.
Cut in half, still animate, each helpless piece
reached out to the other.
Like God, we killed at random and without purpose.
I forget to switch on
the washing machine for
the fourth time this week
over the sound of
my mother’s chiding, I think
of the clothes marinating in
yesterday’s sweat and foodstains
waiting for the rush of soap and water
much like a planet full
of restless bodies
stagnant as scummy puddles
buzzing with mosquitoes and the
stench of despair
waiting for a vaccine
to set us free
at first, the virus was
a monster from childhood cartoons
spiky burrs clinging, uninvited
to skin, clothing, hair
life melted into a ceremony
of sprays and sanitizers
that always smell too much like
the inside of my father’s cupboard
now, my phone floods
a pool of numbers and data
my breath catches under
six layers of cloth
I wash my hands obsessively
counting the seconds with some tune
lady macbeth muttering in her sleep
watching dreaded burrs drown
in bubbly torrents
as days blend into a
colourless mass of nothing
and too much
my grandmother forgets
the day her husband died
half a decade ago
six decades of togetherness slip
between the ridges of memory
into the gaping maw of
a year that takes, takes
and takes and takes
love, laughter, togetherness
hope, crackle and disappear
pixelated faces fade
patchy internet connections triumph
how soon before it takes
the last weapon in our collective
The Earth Holds Us, Always
– for Hamed Efendić
I’ve been two weeks home
and won’t wash my sandals clean.
The mud from your grave, from
your son’s, caked and brown, from where
we stood listening to speeches that day,
after it rained. From where the ground held
bodies beneath (at rest), bodies above (in prayer),
holds questions still. Before arriving to your
house, your widow, your wife, by car
over winding green and villages and fires
lit as some kind of warning, I flew to Sarajevo
and was met by a friend, a handsome poet, Mirsad.
He worked (though he wasn’t paid) at the National
Museum. Driving in from the airport, we stopped
at a light. Two sets of small Roma hands flew inside,
landed along the car’s half-cocked windows—lock,
unlock, lock. And the sun lifted the city’s early fog,
its daily crown of cloud. We walked in the garden,
the curator and I, on gravel paths, in the courtyard.
The museum walls tall, untouched, upright around us.
We walked in the sun through Bogomil tombs
so white they shone. I slept under a wide desk then,
slept jet lag’s unstoppable sleep. On the museum floor,
blackness, no dreams—not as I dream of you now,
gospodin—now home—and the survivors. Nirha,
your girl, a woman. Her husband. Their infant son,
Muhammed, who lived, who lives, who is
all smiles and coos, who knows nothing yet
of what was.
Whitetopia: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Nearing the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, May 31-June 1, 1921
Scorched ghosts with ashy-crusted
brows and hair, dressed in sooted
antique clothes, press their palms
against the tinted glass.
They peer into this room of higher learning
where air and light are clear;
a poet’s word and history seminar
gathers Black and White together.
The poet native to the state riffs on 1921
which the city scrubbed away for so long,
pale minds craving history clean and shiny.
Seeming subject skittish, she scarcely
grants my draft on 1921 a nod, saying
as she steps before the dais, ‘Who next.’
On Haskill Street, two blocks from here,
seven sets of crumbling concrete steps
rise neighborly to vacant grassy lots
where vanished homes pine for their walls
and wind tattoos the naked sites.
Eighteen hours the white mob hunted,
looted, burned and killed, armed
with guns and ropes and cloth-
wicked bottles sloshing gas.
From biplanes pitchy missiles
dropped upon the roofs
of Greenwood District – Black Wall Street –
igniting, popping plaster, collapsing beams:
such are the bonfires of envy.
The screams and cries of children,
the quiet tones of shushing women
still wind like streams through the town;
some were killed; the men defended
but when cornered and outnumbered
they surrendered, and they were killed.
Reported chronicles of losses: churches
schools, hospital; enterprises:
hotels, cafés, movie houses,
banks, clothiers, law and doctor offices
and more – 191 gone; houses looted – 215,
burned to the ground – 1,256;
all told, thirty-five blocks destroyed.
8,000 homeless; 6,000 held;
estimated dead upwards of 300
nearly all deprived of formal naming,
carted off and dumped, stories
and rumors of where passed down.
No rituals of death for the disappeared.
From Greenwood see them flee.
In Greenwood see them fall.
Billowing smoke buffets and bruises the sky.
Today the city rises proud and tall,
built by gas and oil; the highway loop
through Greenwood built to serve us all.
Statues, a tower and lovely grounds
two blocks south – the John Hope Franklin
Center for Reconciliation and Park –
commemorates the event; origins; contributions;
pain and struggles; yet a zone perdures –
divides the halves of this town.
Late at Oaklawn’s Potters’ Field,
the commissioned dig and strike
a coffin with a spade.
Here lies a mass grave.
Once hidden these ‘original eighteen’
await the restoration of their names.
The Oklahoma sky, sun-bitten,
hovers over all the haunting and the haunted
dead, and all who walk among the living.
—Mary Margaret Freeman
Wisconsin Hunters Kill Over 200 Wolves in Less Than Three Days
I’ve never heard, but wish to,
the children of the night;
their collective otherworldly keening
breaking the crystal glass of cold evening
is something I know my body would know,
and my muscles shiver at, instinctively.
My cousins once found a blacksnake napping
in a dawn-warmed tin bucket,
carried it to the edge of the woods,
then hacked it to pieces. My neighbors
upon finding a family of foxes denned
among the trees beside my home,
poisoned them all, mother, father, kits.
Once when my aunt and I were peeking
into the dark interior of a house for sale,
my aunt took off her flip flop
and stood on one foot to smash
to death a spider minding her web.
But I would gladly pull back a bit, give back
the terror the forests once commanded.
To carry fear as my mothered carried
the wolf spider in a glass jar,
across the deep yard, past the road
and into the trees to release it there.
—Mary Ann Honaker