Poem with Birth Ledger and Crawfish

I was born in a small house
in the country. The walls

just held my heart, which sunk
its roots down deep through

the garden, cornfields, creek—
the crawfish in their rocky dark,

the chickens dust bathing in the
yard. The animals were close:

raccoons, possums, fox, deer,
knocking at the back door 

where my mother left food for the cats.
When we moved: my roots tore.

Everything begins in childhood.
The song starts there, the poem.

It was a spring morning when I was born.
It was May. My mother’s hair was long.

The animals and earth were waking up,
preparing for a summer riot.

Notes on the Grammar and Gender of Mastery

I.

Master-hand
Master-jest
Master-key
Master-lode
Master-piece
Master-sinew
Master-string
Master-stroke
Master-tooth
Master-touch
Master-work
Master-wort

These words occur in both editions of Noah Webster’s dictionary found in Emily Dickinson’s library[1] following the word “master.” The reader knows them in relationship to the word “master”—it oversees and drives their definitions, it makes them what they are, governs their function, superintends their compound meaning.

Webster’s first definition for “master” offers a clipped, succinct summary of the word’s expression of power and the relationship implied by it: “A man who rules, governs or directs either men or business.” The following examples clarify: “A man who owns slaves is their master; he who has servants is their master; he who has apprentices is their master.” Webster’s is an early 19th-century American dictionary, and all the editions written during Webster’s life were composed under the full legality of slavery in the United States. That slavery is present in the word’s first entry is not surprising, as plantations and “king cotton” drove the U.S. economy at this time, from the North to the South, many people in Webster’s New England owning Southern land and plantations, paying overseers and managers to do their work and enact their mastership by proxy.[2]

The quietly radical poet in Amherst, Massachusetts who owned two editions of Webster’s, turned their pages, poured over entries and the quotes from literature inside them was touched—as we all are touched—by the language and reality of mastery.

*

Noah Webster, entry ten for “master”: “One uncontrolled.”

*

After seventeen entries detailing specific roles defining the word “master,” all seventeen included in both editions, Webster adds: “The word master has numerous applications, in all of which it has the sense of director, chief or superintendent.” In plainer English: there are too many kinds of mastership to name—seventeen is sufficient for Webster.

The word “mistress,” as gendered corollary, does not come up.

*

What is a word? It is also a deed.[3] “Master,” as English knows it, is a compound of the Latin root magis, major (“greater”) and Teutonic ster, to steer. But more than syllables in air, the word “Master” controls the grammar of mastery, the concept of rulership, power, skill, and craft.

*

I spend time now with the sounds and senses that spin from “master” like spider-silk because I once thought I knew the word. Only it was a stranger. Not a total stranger, but (literally, in my case) the relative you did not know you had. The name that appears in your life suddenly, abruptly, as someone you share blood or bonds with—a name linked intrinsically with yours, despite your not-knowing, your ignorance; history is there.

I thought I understood something about what a master was, because my family has deep settler-colonial roots in North Carolina, and multiple third-great-grandfathers on my maternal side enslaved, built slave houses, owned plantations, named how many persons they owned and their ages on federal censuses.

I thought mastery was for men—that it was men who enslaved, men went to auctions and bid on other humans. That mastery was the violent ownership of men. I didn’t let my mind wander to women.

I should have.

*

Even before I identified more comfortably as nonbinary or earned the title “Dr,” I did not care for the address “Miss” or “Mrs.,” both short for “mistress.” Because of my personal history and experience—heavily and traditionally gendered, only allowed to wear skirts or dresses as a child, told I could study anything[4] in college because I would “not have to provide for a family”—in “Ms.” and “Mrs.” I heard subservience, assumed the kind of power relationship that existed between “mistress” and “master” could only be one of inequality and service.[5] In the fundamental, Protestant church I grew up in, it was accepted that the man “was the head of the family,” the leader and provider. A Mennonite neighbor, both more canny and more honest that many evangelical women, if she overheard the “head of the family” expression would add: “Yes, but the woman is the neck that turns the head.” This is how I understood power relationships between men and women, growing up. There was a hierarchy, and women had derived and manipulative power, if they wanted it.

*

The knowledge that rattled my mind’s cage this summer, mucking about in family genealogy on Ancestry.com, was the discovery that white women in North Carolina, close neighbors of the Giddens’ family in my maternal family tree, were listed as “slave holders” on an 1830 census that was conducted in Samson County, North Carolina. It wasn’t a single Mary or Elizabeth that caught my eye, but the appearance of at least two or three women on every census pages. I was startled down to my bones, and incensed (knowledge—hard knowledge—often enters my body as anger). I was not raised by a second or third wave feminist, but I know the arguments of feminism—particularly white feminism. I do not hear contemporary feminists often talk about their colonial power. Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ book They Were Her Property examines just this power. “The term mistress,” writes Jones-Rogers, “did not signify a married woman’s subservient legal position or a woman’s subordinate status to that of a master. By definition and in fact, the mistress was the master’s equivalent…the term used to describe women’s control of subordinates was not mastery but mistress-ship.” I rocked back on my mind’s heels—I had never heard this phrase “mistress-ship.”

In her book, Jones-Rogers details the incredible legal and financial literacy of colonial white women in the South, and the reality of their human capital—simpler ownership and inheritance than “real estate,” which was traditionally limited to men and their sons.

“For [white women],” states Jones-Rogers, “slavery was their freedom.”

*

What does the dictionary that belonged to Emily Dickinson, author of “the master letters,” have to say about “mistress-ship”?

Webster offers nine entries for “mistress,”—note that only the eighth and ninth entry have to do with the definition that we now often think of first: “A woman in keeping for lewd purposes.” “Mistress” comes from the same Latin root as “master” (the feminized magistra), and the first entry reads “A woman who governs; correlative to servant, slave or subject.” That is: “mistress” holds the same relationship to servant, slave or subject as “master” does—they are equal terms for directing others of lesser or inequal power.

What blows me away—like a gale wind—is that we have not let this language of mistress-ship or mastery go. It is embedded in our speech, our forms of address. I hear the word “masterful” or “mastery” on a near weekly basis among other writers and readers. (Not to say that this is entirely bad, but how the word is used and who uses it is something we should consider, particularly as professional language practitioners). But more slyly yet is the continued and contemporary address of “Master” and “Mistress”—or Mr. and Mrs., as we use them now.

Notes Webster: “As a title of respect given to adult persons, it is pronounced mister; a pronunciation which seems to have been derived from some of the northern dialects.”

*

The photographer Sally Mann has noted that “master” and “miss” were how people of color addressed her siblings and herself as children growing in Southern Virginia, state seat of the second capital of the Confederacy in Richmond.

We are not as far from the language of mastery—and by direct implication, enslavement—as we think.

The language runs deep, so deep. Trees, we are told, have rootspread that can run two to three times the diameter of the tree’s visible crown. So it is with the syllables on our tongues. The words we do not pause over. The histories of power and ownership that run through the hallways of our family homes, dressed in white sheets.

II.

The entry for “master” found in the Emily Dickinson Lexicon[6]:

master [-s] n

ME meister,<L. Magister.

1. Jesus Christ as Savior.

2. Individual having control over another by virtue of love.

Why turn to Dickinson’s dictionary? Why drag an antinomian poet and private personality into a conversation of mastery? Because you can withdraw from the world, but not withdraw from language; because you would have to withdraw from language to withdraw from the world. There is no such thing, wrote Wittgenstein, as a private language. Language necessitates shared meanings and signs, symbols, gestures—lived experiences, society, community. Dickinson participated in all of these forms of life.

Dickinson’s three unsent, draft letters (written between 1858-1862) addressed to “Master” have intrigued poets and scholars for decades. No one knows the intended recipient. But as the Emily Dickinson Lexicon entry above (boldly) asserts: the concept of “Master” was embedded in Dickinson’s theology and in the way she read the spiritual and physical world. Her master letters center on describing literal sickness and spiritual “wounds,” employing dramatic metaphors of sea and the shore alongside the existential reality of death. Dickinson’s “master letters” read as letters penned during crises, petitions from “Daisy” to “Master”—the letters’ recipient figured as the sun the daisy, or “Day’s Eye,” turns towards, phototropically.

In her second and longest master letter, Dickinson writes “God made me – Master – I did’nt be – myself. I dont know how it was done. He built the heart in me – Bye and bye it outgrew me – and like the little mother – with the big child – I got tired holding him.” God’s authorship of Dickinson’s heart enables her own mistress-ship of it—she acknowledges her participation in the hierarchy of being as (little) mother to (big) child, and (perhaps) suggests that she set that hierarchy aside: “I got tired of holding him.” Though she seems to mean her heart grew heavy, there is slippage with the antecedent of “God.” The idea of setting God aside—Dickinson’s first “master,” in a sense—is strengthened by what immediately follows regarding her engagement with the theology of redemption. Having just said that she is tired, Dickinson confesses, “I heard of a thing called ‘Redemption’ – which rested men and women. You remember I asked you for it – you gave me something else. I forgot the Redemption and was tired – no more -.”

This setting aside—or forgetting—of redemption does not mean “God” is a light concept to Dickinson. Hardly. In fact, there are multiple poems written around the time of the final master letter that engage the language of “master,” several appearing in fascicle 32. One of Dickinson’s poems, “He fumbles at your soul,” was titled “The Master” by Dickinson’s sister-in-law and posthumous editor Mabel Loomis Todd in the 1896 volume of Dickinson’s poetry. It appears in fascicle 22, dated c. 1862, and appears with the following variants:

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys –
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by Degrees –

Prepares your brittle substance
For the etherial Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so – slow –

Your Breath – has (time) chance to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble cool –
Deals One – imperial Thunder – bolt –
That (scalps) peels your naked soul –

When Winds hold Forests in their Paws –
(The Universe – is still) The Firmaments – are still –

One of the delights of Dickinson’s metaphor-rich poetry is that it need never be about one thing only. “He fumbles at your soul” could be about the sublime sonics and physical experience of a thunderstorm, or a divine theophany, or a physical epiphany (or assault). The reader can say with confidence that it is poem about visceral and ferocious power—no wonder Mabel Loomis Todd read it and thought it must address “the” (divine) master, and describe control at the level of the cosmos and the human soul. If Todd intended another meaning by titling Dickinson’s poem “The Master,” we will probably never know. Even without the explicit title, the description of sheer power and agency (“He fumbles at your soul,” and “that peels/scalps your naked soul”) considered alongside the poems with explicit “master” language, creates a constellation of meaning out of which the “master” letters derive their own shape and sense. While Dickinson employs the address “Master” analogically—its degree varying based on its referent—regardless of the recipient, Dickinson employs the term to indicate power and deference, as in the poem “A Wife – at Daybreak,” that closes with the lines “Eternity – I’m coming – Sir – / Master – I’ve seen the Face – before -.”

To acknowledge power is not to be without power—to be mistress or mother is not to be without power.

Language itself is power, a speaker has power.

While there are no new archival discoveries offering new entries or understanding to the mystery of Dickinson’s master letters, it is past time that readers understand that “master” (and mistress) is also the language of the American plantation and other white settler-colonial institutions (the church, the school, the government, the home). When Lucille Clifton, a Black woman poet, uses the word “master” in her poem “Study the Masters,” there is both a wide historical difference in the deployment and position of that address and a revolution of the language of master—Clifton revolves the language, turns the language of mastery on its head, see-saws the appellation of “master”:

like my aunt timmie.

it was her iron,

or one like hers,

that smoothed the sheets

the master poet slept on.

Clifton’s Aunt Timmie’s handiwork as well as her words—“some cherokee, some masai and some / huge and particular as hope”—demonstrates how the language of mastery has corrupted how we understand labor, skill, and poetry, setting up some people as arbiters of what is good while subordinating the labors of others. It recenters the labor done—the domestic, caretaking work that keeps a house running—and the laborer at the poem’s center. Aunt Timmie is ironing—the catalyst and subject. The master poet is sleeping, physically and metaphorically.

In “Study the Masters,” with her usual deft incision and clarity, Clifton shows us what the poverty of America’s understanding of the word “master” (and “mistress”)—and their violent institutional power—has robbed us of:

if you had heard her

chanting as she ironed

you would understand form and line

and discipline and order and

america.

What I hope for, as a writer and a critic, is a wider focus for America—for our poetry and our labor, for the labor that is also our poetry—a truthfulness of language and an expansion of how we think about our relationships to power, which all of us have in fluctuating abundance.

What are the power relationships you have confessed to only in unsent letter drafts?  

What are the fantasies of power keeping you from actual work, from Aunt Timmie’s knowledge of “form and line / and discipline and order and / america”?


[1] Noah Webster’s first 1828 edition and the 1844 reprint of the 1841 second edition, revised and expanded—Webster died shortly after completing the 1841 American Dictionary of the English Language.

[2] Because one is from New England, or really any geography, does not mean your family is unattached from U.S. violence. The UK and Europe sold the Confederacy their wool for uniforms, munitions, sent spies, their skirts sometimes heavy with the weight of gold sovereigns, sewn into their hems.

[3] Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell.

[4] Which actually made my mother a liberal among our conservative communities.

[5] Some of my reading suggests that, against what we might think, freedoms have in some ways gotten worse for women—or, rather, our collective, societal view of women has deteriorated since colonial times.

[6] “Master,” Emily Dickinson Lexicon: https://www.edickinson.org/words/4172

Bird Song Sounds Out of Tune Only to the Human Ear


in the quiet between November and December,
a white-throated sparrow sings
five long notes

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

for weeks I insist I hear an off-key bird,
stand barefoot on the porch
of my not-knowing

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Po-or Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody
sings the sparrow, passerine toes
holding the pine

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

even when I did not know your name, sparrow,
I knew your song, the particular way 
you break the silence

On Writing Blurbs

Blurb, definitions:

noun, a short publicity notice (as on a book jacket)

verb, to describe or praise in a blurb

Scenario: you are asked to blurb a fellow author’s book. Wonderful! This request says they trust and admire you as a reader and writer yourself.

How do you decide whether to write a blurb?

You don’t have to know the author well, or even their work. Sometimes you know both well, sometimes not. If you are unfamiliar with the author but open to taking the time required to write a blurb, ask to see the manuscript in question and read/skim before committing. You want the blurb to be a good fit for both the author, the book, and you. I usually know the author’s work—if not the book in question, I am familiar with individual poems, or a journal they edit. We typically have some connection. Connection is important! Ie, often someone will be asking you to blurb their book because they feel they share a connection with you as a reader or writing peer. It’s an honor, especially when sincere (e.g. the asker has thought about it, and the ask is not flippant or based on a popularity assumption). If you don’t have time to write a blurb or feel the title if not a good fit for your readership, congratulate the author on their forthcoming book and politely decline! Please don’t ghost them. Even a sentence of response is much more welcome and supportive.

Scenario: You’ve said yes! Now what?

How do you write a good blurb?

A blurb is a genre, and like all genres it has conventions and expectations that come along with it. A blurb is not a space to critique or even simply describe. A BLURB NEEDS TO PRAISE. This is why it’s important to only blurbs book you can sincerely throw your support behind. It is easier to praise when it is the truth, which is why I commit to honesty when I write blurbs—my praise is sincere. As an aside: your reader can tell if your bluffing or full of hot air—ultimately, an insincere blurb has the potential to harm a book, author, and turn the reader away (the opposite of what a good blurb should do!). Knowing that our words and our praise have weight, only say yes to a blurb if your heart can be in it. A good blurb leads with praise and closes with praise. It is not a book review—you are showing up strictly to support the author.

How long is a blurb?

A good blurb is short. My dad always says be brief, be brilliant, be gone. A blurb is equally a flex of your writing skills (in the service of another! but still!). Don’t be throwing around unclear metaphors or using hyperbole for the sake of hyberole. Be clear, specific, and try to keep it between 80-150 words. The author of the text you’re blurbing had to cut words to make their text the sharpest it could be—since the blurb is much shorter than the book, and often in a highly visible place (back cover or, lucky blurber, front of the book’s cover), treat your blurb like the high real estate genre it is: every sentence, every adjective or article matters. Ask the author/press for a wordcount ballpark.

Some best practices:

DO: Read other blurbs as models. See what folks are doing. Take notes of repetitive trends and go-to moves. You can learn as much from a terrible blurb as a sparkling one.

DO: Remember that you are entering a field of praise when you write a blurb, which means you need to step up to that level of praise. Ever heard the saying “Damned by faint praise”? This is a reality when you write a blurb!

DO: use active voice in a blurb, and a dynamite and VERY BRIEF quotation.

DO: be very specific and cite particulars when you write a blurb—say what could only be said of the text in front of you. If you can lift your blurb and apply it to another text, it’s not specific enough and your heart and attention aren’t in it.

DO: read your blurb aloud and proof your blurb. Double check your pronouns and spelling. Nothing says a blurber wasn’t paying attention like a misspelled title, name, or misgendering of the author. Look at the author’s bio online to confirm pronouns, and ask them if needed! Always!

DON’T: fall back on easy language, like “rich attention to detail,” “evocative,” brave, unapologetic, necessary (there are political implications here of course, check out how WOC are routinely blurbed/reviewed). As a reviews editor, I see this language repeated until it means nothing. If you are deeply compelled to use language like the above, qualify it and say why the book is brave or necessary or detailed! Cite details, name names, be as specific and particular as possible. Let’s be honest, most books have rich detail, one way or another. Tell me, as the blurb reader, why this book is different! Name the book’s special work; tell me what lit you up inside about the author’s language, story telling, lines, historical recounting.

DON’T: put the focus on you. It is not about you, it is about the title and the author. I almost can’t believe this needs to be said, but if your attention is on you, you are failing the blurb and the author you chose to support.

DON’T: go on too long. Be brief, be brilliant, be gone. If you do give the author/press a long blurb, let them know whether they have your permission to cut/abbreviate it. Be aware that they might do that without asking, and decide whether you need to shorten it yourself if that is the case. Give them the permission they need to make a good book. Try not to be a thorn in their side. Respond to emails.

I pulled Jane Springer’s Murder Ballad off my shelf just now, because I remember a D.A. Powell blurb that took the wind out of me. (And yes, I always read the blurbs on a book, because they are essential paratexts to how a book is positioned in the world—praise is instructive, y’all!) Let’s look at all three blurbs on this Alice James Book title:

Naomi Shihab Nye:

“Jane Springer’s poems are dazzling, devastating, and utterly original—sound-rich, sensual, sensational—you will be carried away.”

A single sentence. When you are Naomi Shihab Nye, or a writer with a career of similar caliber, you can get away with a single sentence! Note what Nye can do with a single sentence, the alliteration/consonance of her adjectives (dazzling, devastation; sound-rich, sensual, sensational), the dramatic m-dashes, the heights and depths of the emotional sentence. When Nye tells the back cover reader that they will be carried away well, you believe her. Nye’s name—well respected, beloved—is doing a lot of work here as well. If you are a lesser known writer, you might need to lean into convincing the back cover reader to remember or note your name.

D.A. Powell:

“I have a feeling Jane Springer met the devil at the crossroads. There’s not a note she can’t pluck, and the music is like no one else’s: rich as the red clay of Georgia, startling as a raccoon’s bite, ‘crazy as a shithouse rat,’ and cool as sweet tea on a sultry afternoon. There’s some nitty-gritty here, hauled up from the freezer chest on the porch, unearthed like a mastodon that’s been buried far longer than we can imagine. And there is tremendous vitality and sublimity in this ‘dark county of the heart’ where her music comes from. Whatever devilish bargain has been struck, it has been a boon to all parties. Hallelujah for us all.”

This is praise—this is gorgeous, specific, glinting praise at work. It tells a story as much as it describes in imaginative and startling detail. It says something about the generous heart that read Springer’s book and connected with her poems, it says what a brilliant writer D.A. Powell is, AND it is one of the best blurbs I’ve ever read. It ends in hallelujah. Read it, meditate on it, learn from it.

Jane Miller:

“Not since I read James Agee’s A Death in the Family have I been so compelled to stare into the eyeballs of chiggers and mildew. Jane Springer is on a thin reed in the present moment reciting incantatory poems. May I plainly say, ‘What a goddamn beautiful book this is.’”

When a blurb swears on the back cover—well, you know the book you are holding is a live coal. Miller cites another text—a southern, autobiographical novel set in Tennessee—to help position her reader in relation to Springer’s work. She also drops an evocative and slightly mysterious line about Springer: “Jane Springer is on a thin reed in the present moment reciting incantatory poems.” That single sentence makes you want more, doesn’t it? It makes you want to find out why an author would be described this way.

Taken together, these three blurbs form a chorus on the back of Murder Ballad—they sing together in praise of Springer’s poems. Blurb writing helps us remember, by putting into practice, that we are not individuals floating in an ether but persons tied to other persons, and that books take a chorus of labor and attention to bring into the world. You are participating in something larger than yourself when you write a blurb—remember that your words will literally be situated besides the words of others. Make yours stand out, but also, like the combined voices of a choir, teach yours to sing well with and besides others.

The Field and Poetry

My life, up until graduate school, has always been adjacent to fields. Corn fields by the house I was born in, in rural Virginia. Soy and sorghum fields by the house I grew up in. Even in college, I drove home by passing the John Deere tractors for sale on the hill outside of Fredericksburg, through battlefields. Before transferring to a state school, I attended a community college located beside the county landfill and more fields, developed now with a Walmart and apartments.

The fields I was closest to surrounded our home when I was 9-15. I remember the first morning I walked them, newly moved into the home. There was a fog that morning, a cotton sea. I did not go as far as the field, but I knew it was there. The field was part of our five acres, and our lot ran up to the woods beyond them. But there were fields on either side of our home, and it did not feel like land parcels, but of a piece, of a wholeness. Spaciousness. On the left, our fallow field (gold-brown with sedge-grass, chicken house and garden on the left) met the field the Mennonite dairy farmers—the Nissleys and the Martins— planted with sorghum (for molasses), and soy during their fallow years. On the left, a cedar woodline. My parents built us a playhouse of pallets next to the woodline, and my mother would send us out with hot soup in pint glass canning jars for lunch. To the woodline, we dragged our dried Christmas trees in the cold days of the New Year. There was a place my mother had us dump used cat litter. There was the oak tree where my father hung the deer we butchered.

Elizabeth Bradfield writes about the importance of geographical edges in her place-based essay Fluid States: Ocean as Place & Poetic: “The boundaries of bodies of water are messy and turbulent and they are the most productive places in the sea. It’s where the life is.” I’m interested that it is at the edges and borders of the field, too, where the activities happened. Where we collected as child community, family community. Even the wasps wanted in (to our playhouse, where they made a paper nest).

The field was a living space. We walked through the field to get to the woods. Its edges were important to the shape of our days. Other children had parks, community centers. We had our field and a good half-hour of driving in any direction to reach a gas station.

As a living image, as personal history with land, the field to me is pure potential. It is unmarked by play structures. There would be fields in my future that my father fenced for our goats and chickens (I remember how impressed my parents were, when I was in college, and I told them my friend fenced—they thought only of farm skills, not athletics), but this field was different. This field was unfenced.

If you got down low in the field, there were field mice in grass burrows. There were wild tomatillos growing, tiny green fruit in their paper lantern wrappings. If you crouched or lay down, you could disappear from sight, the sedge grasses waving in the wind above you. There is a specific sound of wind through the grass before a storm—the sedge billowed like a copper sea.

I can trace my poetics back to this unfenced field. I spent five or six years practicing meter and formal poetry, until I could write iambic pentameter without thinking about it. Paradise Lost was like home to me. That is the fenced field. I return, as I must return, to the field of pure potential, unmarked by wire and posts. The only electricity that hums there is that of the person in the field.

Robert Frost famously said that writing without form is like playing tennis without the net. I come from an untennised background. No pools, no tennis courts, no organized athletics. There was no tennis, only the field. Our conception of what a field is is as much linked to class and geography as any of our other concepts—our knowledge always particularly inflected by our specific and contextualized upbringing. We do not use words the same way because we come to them from different histories.

The images of our childhoods are images of origin—deep images in our psyches. Butchering, gardening, raising chickens—these are activities closely linked to the image-history of the field for me. And when I come to the page, I bring the field with me—the two fields intersect, overlap, layer onto each other. It is why I am so attracted to hybridity and genre-play, to challenging language that leaves gaps for the reader to move or drift into. C.D. Wright wrote that “a genre…is a place to get away from and a place to come back to.” What is not fixed, but ever-present for me is the field—a space of undiluted potential. Both the rising and the setting sun set the sedge grass on golden-fire with their light.

The field—of the imagination, of the page—is unfenced. The only animals there are the animals I bring with me.

Three Poets

for Jessica Cuello and Kasey Jueds


walking together

by a blue-mouthed reservoir

each one a writer of darkness, silence

the red squirrels running the fence

the mountains peering down

what does your shirt say, asks an older woman, walking

poesía y putería—poetry and whoring, one of us answers

all of us laughing

as an oriole whistles

as an eagle flies above

the blessing of the birds in its talons

Thinking this morning what an enormous blessing it is to connect with other writers–that twitter is not a community, but that it can provide access to communities many of us do not have locally. Jessica Cuello and Kasey Jueds are both poet “twitter friends,” and I had the great joy of staying with Jessica in a cabin in the Catskills for a few days this summer. While there, we discovered Kasey lived less than ten minutes away (!!!) so we met for a walk together at a nature preserve. All three of us have books out this year, and Kasey and Jessica’s are so stunning–The Thicket and Liar. Get yourself copies, ASAP! Also check out the very first episode of Of Poetry Podcast, that I recorded with Jessica at the tiny kitchen table in the Catskills. An episode with Kasey is in the works!

Storm Season, or White Supremacy and Imagery

Palm Trees in a Hurricane

It is tornado season again in the South. This year the storms blow in alongside a pandemic. I call my mother in Clearwater, Florida, among the palm trees, from my home in North Carolina, among the Loblolly Pines. In the early morning, my family slept through a tornado warning in Durham County—my spouse and I waking as the loudspeaker blared its warning announcement from the nearby high school. The winds and rains pass us by, bringing cooler weather behind them. We bring our potted vegetables into the garage at night.

My mother and I talk tornados and storms. We measure our life by storms in the South—by the names of storms that share their names with us as women: Fran, Katrina, Isabel, Florence.

My mother says: “You have never seen a tree as evil as a palm tree looks in a storm—like black fingers against the sky.” And I laugh at my mother’s Southern-Gothic-meets-New-England-Complaint description. A dramatization—who knows why.

But when I go to write down her words—a hazard of having a writer in the family—I pay more attention to the color black, the personification of the palm trees as a Black body. I start to write a poem about the storms as a marker of days in my life—“This calendar of water / and wind, bent trees”—but I circle back to my mother’s words about the palm trees. “Like black fingers,” sits at the end of a poem like a lead weight. The poem cracks under it.

I write the next four lines before abandoning the poem:

How merciless are you with
the language of your family?

I’ve begun to reach for my pruning sheers
when they open their mouths.

I worry that my instinct is to meet violence with violence—that I think I could transform another person’s language by wounding them. Pruning shears. My mother. On the one hand, forgiveness is a practice. Like pruning, it has to be performed, again and again. Living things need that kind of care—hourly, daily, seasonally. On the other hand, white supremacy is not mine to forgive: in my own mouth, in the mouth of my family, in the mouths of other white people. Words are also deeds, and these speech acts actively harm BIPOC and their daily lives. White supremacy is rooted in the language of the black fingered palms.

My mother is hardly alone in her use of anti-Black language (see how we have shifted from imagery to language at large, from the use of “whiteness” to the actual nature of the language: anti-Black). The canon of Western literature stands behind her, from colonial ballads to John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. 20th-century poetry, especially, loves a poem culminating in the glorification of a white image—a white light, a white burst of flowers, a dazzling white reflection on the water. In such usages, the white image might be argued to speak to clarity, to transcendence, to a higher plane of thought and being. You can’t unsee the white image once you know it is there, say in Frost’s poetry, peering up at the reader from the lip of a well, or enfolding the town in snow.

Power conducts itself through language like electricity through a copper wire; it burns through our images; it holds more than we acknowledge.

Why can’t the palms looks ominous and storm-driven without the summoning of the Black body, without creating an anti-Black specter for an unspoken (yet presumed) white audience? Those of us who are white need to ask ourselves this question as deeply as we can. The pictures we make of the world, the imagery we see around us, the bodies we use to personify the uncertainty and threat of spring storms—this language tells us who we are and, more importantly, it shows others who we are.

Learn from the Pine

Loblolly Pines

Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth invisible

Richard Powers, The Overstory

Four Loblolly Pines—also called Sea Pines, Frankincense Pines, Southern Pines—send their straight trunks through the North Carolina humidity. In a tangle of pine boughs, two hawks have built a nest you might mistake—as I have—for a squirrel’s. Under these pines, under the weep-like hawk cries circling their nest, is my house. In a back room on the first floor, the door closed against the sounds of my children’s play, is my desk. I think of the pines above me as I write, needles brushing the house, pinecones falling with a thunk against the roof. When the wind blows, you can hear the needles blow with it. I welcome the pines’ presence, even when I imagine one falling in a storm’s high winds, as one did through my neighbor Waverly’s kitchen, a few years back. If a pine wants in, it comes in—that pine made a skylight out of Waverly’s kitchen ceiling. Waverly says it took months to fix properly, and several contractors. The tree removal service for a single a large pine like a Loblolly can run you upwards and above a thousand dollars—one lesson here is that it costs to lower something, to haul something pine-sized away, to mulch the evidence of branches.

That the pines do not fall on our house I consider a daily mercy, and the hawks nesting in the pines a grace—especially since I own no chickens, unlike my mother and her grandparents, the majority of our Southern family tree filled with squawking fowl. My mother lost more than one bantam chicken, the smallest and sweetest of show breeds, to a hungry hawk. The Loblolly Pines that the hawks nest in are gloriously tall and straight, and it’s easy to visualize how the British sailors took one look at American pines—specifically, New Hampshire’s White Pines—and saw the masts and the making of many ships. The British Crown appointed official Surveyors of Pine and Timber to mark suitable “Mast Trees” and reserve them as “The King’s Pines.” Colonists were threatened with the (then-incredible) fine of £100 for cutting down marked trees. True to form, the New England colonists did what they pleased on American soil, disregarding the King’s edict and felling White Pines liberally for their own use. The White Pine, growing to 150-240 feet, dwarfs the 60-110-foot Loblollies above me. But no one has marked the Loblolly Pines with the three-slash hatchet mark, known as The King’s Broad Arrow mark. There is no king to reserve anything for, in America.

And yet, to say anything about who is currently in power of the pines—and every other natural resource in America—you have to say something about white settlers and colonists, about the lands taken from Indigenous peoples, about the African people brought by force and enslaved by white settlers to work the stolen and evacuated land. When I refer to the Loblollies, I do not say “my pines,” because the quarter acre of land my family’s house is built on belongs rightfully to the Tuscarora and Shakori peoples. I have to go to a website to discover this,[1] and from there I can visit the individual websites of the native peoples who lived here, under the Loblollies, and who were pushed out for the development of Durham and the tobacco industry, for mill sites along the Eno river.[2] The land and the peoples involved forget none of this history, and we live daily with the historical repercussions; systemic racism fuels American institutions: school districts are still effectively segregated, resources are channeled to wealthy neighborhoods (for example, the planting of trees—a recent study shows that in the city of Durham, wealthy, whiter neighborhoods have a canopy cover of 50%, while predominantly Black neighborhoods have 10%[3])—predominately white districts in which the polling places stay open all election day long. It’s a fantasy that racism in America is a Southern problem, that it belongs somehow to the air underneath the Loblolly pines—historical accounts show us that racism is American, from shore to shore, sea to sea, from deep Louisiana to Vermont, to California and Oregon and all the states between.

Perhaps it looks as though I have digressed from the North Carolina pines. Yet, to learn from the pine is surely to know the land history of the pine, the politics cutting down both the pine and the peoples the pines sheltered. Why the pines as a focus of attention in the first place? In part because the pines daily invite my attention—towering, evergreen, their long-needled branches gathered at their tops like tassels on ripe corn. In part because I’m am at a moment of suspension in my life, and I find myself constantly looking up to the crowns of the pines, as if for an answer. My family and I are going on six months of quarantine living, and my spouse and I just signed a virtual school attendance commitment form for our children this fall. You would think there would be more understanding and less blame occurring during the daily stresses of a pandemic, but this is patently untrue, and there is an abundant amount of blame going around. Plenty for all, but especially for teachers, mothers, the sick, the young—everyone with no hand or say in COVID-19 testing facilities and school openings (not the people asked to write columns in The New York Times, in other words, not the people on college board of visitors, not the college presidents). It is always the right time to ask the question: Who is being asked to perform the care? How are they being supported (and not supported)? So many of us have no childcare or housekeeper other than our two hands. I ask myself what my responsibilities are, how I have failed. I would like to hear more admittances of failure and acknowledgment of responsibility from those in power, on a daily basis. Daily as the presence of the Loblolly Pine, greeting me as I step out the front door, children and dog in tow for yet another walk around our now-routinely busy park.

How to “learn about pines from the pine,” as the wise, seventeenth-century poet Bashō suggest we do? The pines do not worry or weep, as the hawks do in their branches, after their hawk-fight. One of the virtues of the pines is their Stoicism—unseen, the taproot of the Loblolly grows five feet deep, anchors the pine against rough and passing winds. Yet do not think the pines undramatic, or incapable of action: occasionally the pines fall with giant crashes, and sunder houses. A great wind can fell a Loblolly Pine, in part because of its height and stature, its immovability. While a pine might gently sway in the wind, a reed or cattail bends itself double, survives the storm by bowing, and then bounding back. The pine cannot bend like that. But the pine can shade and shelter a pair of nesting hawks. It can offer itself, be itself, and find water for its roots, though it must shoot through the pipes of our house to find it, water trapped and rising, flooding the bathroom. The pine lives—a fact we neglect often to take into account, as wooded areas are leveled for new townhouse developments in Durham. The pine lives, and sometimes it falls. When the pine knocks on your door or your kitchen ceiling, you will know it: hear the roar in your ears, the crash of branches, the vibrations in your body. Its presence will be undeniable. It will bring the weather in with it. You will feel the wind and the rain on your face, in your hair. A strong and branching presence is what I learn from the pine, a rooted attention to place; a respect for the lives before us, around us, and coming after our own brief time.


[1] Native Land Map: https://native-land.ca/

[2] Learn more about the Tuscarora people here: http://www.skngov.com/ and https://tuscaroranationnc.com/. In visiting these sites, I am struck by how digital “sites” are the only space(s) truly left to Indigenous people.

[3] A 2016 Duke University study, “Durham’s Urban Forest: Living in the Shade of Injustice.”

a counting list : postpartum depression

the small slip
of the infant’s bottom
in the blue bath water

how perfection is 
an unsung psalm

the form of eggs

six am half-light and 
grasses on the hill

twelve goats running uphill

extra slices of bread after dinner
and soft butter in the dish

the infant asleep 
in five minutes

asleep again in two
 

______

I have an unpublished chapbook called m(other), and this is a poem in it that I think about a lot–I did this morning, when there was soft butter on the counter. Postpartum depression can make the smallest acts monumental, overwhelming–even something little like setting out butter, washing a dish, picking up a sock. I struggled mightily with any sense of self during my first postpartum experience–and this poem is a ledger of remembering some of the graces in life, despite a deep soul-body weariness.