“I wonder if it’s possible to will myself into spontaneous combustion.”
Aleyna Rentz, from Cincinnati Review
Charred bones hold a certain
appeal. A ravaging by fire
before crumbling into the dirt of
Malva up the street bloom
in the palest of pinks. And now
hosta send up the sturdy
stalks of their flowers. July,
this July coming, is still familiar
to them in a way to me
it is not.
Hair shooting out of my scalp
transformed into poison darts
would more clearly show
the neighbors who I am
than the little waves, nods,
the purse across the chest,
holding phone and dog treats
as if the old rules of communication and reward still apply.
The house remains standing. The grass
grows in the fits and starts
indicative of shade. This morning
the dog sat on the deck planks
still wet from last night’s rain. He
was listening. Dogs are always
Would it help to shave my
head? To craft an embroidered
badge saying I’M DONE or WAKE UP?
To make visible the roiling
disappointment, so roiling,
so disappointed as to render the
Old styles of rebellion will not
hold. Saving democracy is
not a style decision, as much as
we might like it to be.
Revelation after damning revelation
and STILL we wonder: will it matter?
We’re talking a femoral bleed.
Grasping around to find
a tourniquet, placing the life-
saving band around the body
but forgetting how to tie a knot.
“No July 4 for me this year,” say
some, while many others have
never had much to celebrate about
our so-called independence, our
A flawed past does not
condemn us to tyranny. Please, someone,
make magnets saying that so I can put
them eye-level on the fridge, linking
hunger and hope and reason.
We don’t forget to eat, so
why should we forget to dream big?
To believe in possibility?
The squirrels chip at the air
with their throats. I used to think
it was the cardinals.
Somewhere, someone mows a
lawn. Somewhere, someone gets
water off a truck because lead
contaminates their water. Local
jack hammers signify home
improvement. Federal jack
hammering comes in the form
of 6-3 opinions. They
are blasting away at basic assumptions,
at long-held rights, at
the beliefs and needs of the majority — at
their own jurisprudence.
Who do you talk to in the
still of the night? Some nights
it is the ghost of my mother.
Other nights it is my own
nervous system. Sometimes
my children show up as absence
and silence and that keeps me
Not all loss is national and
I have my snacks ready
for the next set of revelations.
A friend is coming to sit by and
watch with me.
How we connect now matters more than ever.
Last night the sky blazed
orange. Chips of light between
maple and beech trees like mosaics.
It’s hard to remember the world
when you are perpetually walking
between kitchen and living room,
bathroom and bed. COVID, anyone? Or should I say: COVID for EVERYONE!
The world as defiled. The
world as holy. I don’t need
to shave my head to show
how my heart is trembling.
*. *. *.
This was written to a prompt in my Tuesday Amherst Writers and Artists workshop — the last until mid-August. The prompt was the Rentz quote above which appeared in a piece titled The Land of Uz. Cincinnati Review, Fall ’21.
The photo of Hutchinson was taken from a PBS website, but it is everywhere. I ran it through a filter in the Prisma app.
P.S. if you look carefully at the fairy-lights-photo, you will see Finn behind the glass door.
I happed upon this image just before a writing session. Here’s most of what I wrote.
Up, anxious, sitting on the pot. Above the bathroom curtain’s ruffle, I can see a section of the night sky. A wedge of moon travels above Linshaw’s roof and into the netted shadows of their massive copper beech.
That tree, part sentinel, part cautionary tale, is hundreds of years old. It was a sapling during the small pox epidemic of the late 1700’s. It grabbed sky in one direction and earth in the other when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Horses and a stream wandered nearby at one time.
The beech was bigger yet at the Emancipation Proclamation. By the time of the Spanish flu perhaps the twin trunks had established themselves.
The white planked house is old too, but not nearly as old as the tree. I like to think that Abraham Jackson sited the foundation with due regard for the tree, a tree which was still in its youth but already punctuating his property with its mighty grace at the time of building.
The moon in her delicate variety is older yet, so old that a different scale of time is required. The coal-to-diamond scale. The asteroid-encounter scale.
All I can think about during my brief viewing of the night sky is how insular I’ve become. A life apart from the wonder of puddles and their up-side-down worlds. Apart from trout and hummingbirds. Apart from the cleansing sweep of cold night air in the lungs.
Oh I go outside, but my walks with the dog are more like mail delivery than adventure. Making the rounds. A chance to take stock of all the closed blinds and wonder why so few structures ever show any signs of life.
When I lived on the other side of the state in the Berkshires, all I had to do was raise my head off the pillow and gaze out my eastern window to be transported. Sheep’s Heaven Mountain, a name whispering: time passes, time passes. Not that long ago the wooded hill was bare and dotted with sheep.
Here the horizon is poked with roofs. One neighbor painted their house a bright yellow this year and at first I wondered at their choice. Today I welcome its yolky warmth in all the grey.
All the grey can dull the senses. Maybe that’s why the news of a snowy owl in Washington, D.C. captivated me this morning. She’d made her way south from her usual haunts. She could be yet another signal of the drastic climate change we’re all so busily — in one way or another — trying to ignore.
But when I spy her fluffed up against the cold atop a statue of Themis, a figure representing freedom and justice, I like to think she stands for something else. That she augurs change. I like to think that when she lifts her wings and reveals their white undersides, we are meant to notice and in noticing, act.
I don’t believe the arc of the moral universe necessarily bends toward justice. There are too many ways we can fail. But this bird perched on the head of a goddess carrying the sword of justice lets me think we have a chance. A chance to make things right. A chance to live up to our promise and to atone for our sins. Not because I say so, but because a solitary owl, mysterious and commanding, has told me so.
A spoken work with references to the nursery rhyme, Ring Around the Rosie, and to ideas put forth by Resmaa Menakem in a recent interview with Krista Tippet, On Being. See references, below. Resmaa Menakem is the author of My Grandmother’s Hands, Racialized Traum and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.
Ring around the plaza
an eye socket full of gas
the corner goes up in flames.
Ashes, ashes, we all
Ring around the Big House
pocketful of protests.
The fence becomes a meme
Ashes, ashes, we all
fall down and weep.
Ring around the house of worship
pockets emptied of protection.
The Reverend’s voice rings to
the rafters of the nation:
“Because you held a
knee to our neck.”
Ring around the Rosie
a reference to a rash,
pockets full of posies,
nosegays believed to
protect against the plague.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down
as cases spike, the bodies
that cannot breathe, numerous.
Ring around the wrist or the waist.
We wear our slogans proudly
as if our purchasing history
might changed the damage done
Free Shipping! Black Lives Matter!
Ring up the purchases, fast and
furious, for it’s not all
pat and full of pride. The
esteemed list of best sellers
goes nearly fully to educating
white people about the ills of
our body, our white body,
holding down the Black body
for fourteen generations.
‘Performative’ sneers a neighbor
‘a buzzword,’ she demeans,
then puts “micro-aggression”
in quotes, nearly begging
to be challenged in a post
decrying white women
challenging each other.
We could argue. I could be
right and she wrong or
I could be obnoxious and she right
and none of it would matter since
it all happens from the
neck up and slightly to the left.*
What if Justice with a
capital “J” arises from a
place located just below
What if it’s a problem
niceness can’t nice us
out of? And policy can’t
strategize us out of?*
I’m reminded of the brief
time in one of my toddler’s
lives, when he went
around disagreeing with
everyone. “You are
UNcorrect,” he’d scold.
Neighbor, fellow white
progressive, you are
UNcorrect. Hook up the
laugh track or better yet join hands and
spin and spin and spin until
the world blurs into horizontal
stripes and when we all fall
down, the world tilts and
makes us woozy — a
full body sense of disorientation,
a visceral impression
of losing hold of our
ingrained reliable perspectives —
even gravity unfamiliar.
A falling down
that might unhinge us
enough to fully rise up.
No nosegays for protection,
no signs of disease
breaking out, but an
a skeletal curiosity
a human openness lacking
historic reference to white
supremacy except as
a check and a check again —
a hand out held for a
less insular dance
maybe even a fever pitch
where race matters as
culture but not as an
up or down measure.
Ring around the Rosie,
a Juneteenth dance,
a July 4th dance.
Post pandemic, Post
Tulsa, Watts, Rodney King,
post slavery, reconstruction, Jim
Crow, red lining, post foul brew
of leadership that slinks
from low point to low point.
Some of this will be over
We’ve burned it all down
before — ashes, ashes —
but could this be
the real time, the call
forward, even if the dance goes to
our death — yes, since all
dances go there — but
with real hand holding
in a dance of falling down? Alive.
The wind blows today.
Maybe it brings hope.
* * *
*in his now famous TED talk about education, Sir Kenneth Robinson talks about how most of academia is aimed to an area “above the neck and slightly to the left,” and that this is one of its greatest weaknesses.
* Resmaa Menakem studies how trauma is stored in the body. In his recent interview with Krista Tippet (On Being podcast), he criticizes white anti-racism efforts for relying on strategy and policies, instead of on culture. He also says that ‘white niceness is inadequate to deal with the level of brutality inflicted on black bodies.’ He asserts that the ‘real battlefield is inside our bodies and therefore the conflicts need to be resolved there.’
I shipped the “Hearts for Charleston” quilt last week and the Mother Emanuel’s Memorabilia Committee ought to have received it by now. I’m glad the quilt made it there before the first anniversary of the massacre (June 17).
There is so much to say about this project — how it came together, how much it meant for the ten participants, what each of us learned about the lives lost — but posting about the quilt’s creation doesn’t feel respectful at the moment. If you’re curious, a lot of the process along with links to the makers can be found in the sidebar category “Hearts for Charleston Quilt”. I expect some narrative and documentation to follow. But not now.
Here are photos of the nine people who lost their lives last summer.
People stand outside as parishioners leave the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., four days after a mass shooting at the church claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Blocks were made to honor: Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Susie Jackson, Rev. and Senator Clementa Pinckney, Ethel Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr.
After reading this Post and Courier article, we also decided to honor the five people in the church that night who survived: Felicia Sanders and her granddaughter (Felicia is Tywanza Sanders’ mother), Polly Sheppard, and Jennifer Pinckney (Rev. Clementa’s widow) and her daughter.
Kathy Dorfer stitched “Love heals” on her block (and enclosed this with her square)
The contrast between slow cloth and swift violence was evident all along the way, repeatedly reminding us of the ruthless speed of the news cycle, the continuing savage treatment of blacks in this country, and the permanence of this kind of loss.
I wanted the recipients to be able to hang the quilt upon receipt if desired, so I enclosed a four foot long dowel. That meant I had to use a long, narrow box. It bothered me how much the box looked like the size and shape of a container that would house a rifle. I said as much to the clerk — the staid one with the frizzy bleached hair. To her credit, she didn’t look at me like I was crazy. But she did say the most inane thing to reassure me: “Oh don’t worry, you answered all the questions.”
Answered all the questions? You mean about shipping things “liquid, fragile, perishable, and potentially hazardous” – the questions that I, and presumably lots of other people, routinely lie about? Oh well, I’m guessing the box was opened. I insured the quilt for $500, but if it offers some of the comfort that quilts have been offering since the dawn of needles and cloth, I will consider it priceless.
Where do all the missed orgasms go? Do they stuff themselves into pelvic bones, later to afflict the unsatisfied with bursitis? Do they congregate in the shadows, behind the bureau, say, to become part of what haunts us in the half light when we are alone and already unsettled? Maybe they fly off like the geese that passed overhead this morning while I was walking the dog, barely visible in the fog, honking their lament.
Their ultimate destination ought to depend on how close they came to deliverance, so that the ones that never even stood a chance would go to one graveyard, while the ones that shunted off to the side seconds before blossoming into shuddering, clamping pleasure would go to another, presumably more exalted, resting place. The really near misses might properly be housed in a mausoleum, one lined with stone-carved lilies and angels. Wouldn’t it be nice to offer your disappointments a bouquet of flowers now and then? I would choose red roses, even if rock n’ roll cliché resided in every soft, perfumed fold.
The sorting of failed pleasure feels like a job for Pluto, that merciless lord of the Underworld. If you recall, he’s the guy who sucked Persephone down from a field of flowers where she had been skipping along in innocent glee, a mere handful of yards from her doting mother. What a way to lose your virginity! I’ll have to go back for clues. Are there any hints that Persephone grew to enjoy her year-long subjugation? Or maybe even that she enjoyed it right from the very first bloody, hymen-breaking start?
Maybe the collective missed orgasms sail down to the Underworld and settle in the young girl’s loins, giving her one thudding, yelping orgasm after another, so that in spite of being held captive by a foul-breathed master of cruelty with no capacity to care for her, she at least has that release – or dare I say — ‘fun’?
Probably unspent female pleasure serves no purpose whatsoever — either noble or trivial. And, think about it, if it could serve some greater aim than the simple satisfaction of its participant, why would it choose a story about rape, where the mere whiff of female enjoyment can be so easily misinterpreted by male listeners, the coercive ones that want to believe in their decency but shouldn’t?
All the skewed notions, why add fuel to the fire? On the other hand, why let certain malevolent others have power over the range of my inquiry?
And while we’re talking about women’s pleasure, how about the cinematic female orgasm? You know the one – the grinding mutual orgasm that takes four seconds and requires penetration only. It’s astonishing how ubiquitous it is. Here’s one of many versions: guy shoves lover up against wall while yanking up her skirt, enters her, pumps four or five times to much deep-throated moaning on her part, at which point they climax together. Four seconds, four or five thrusts of his member. To watch any screen for any amount of time gives the impression that there are lots of women going commando in black pencil skirts having way more fun than I do.
Just to be clear. I have fun. Okay?
I would give almost anything to see that improbably hot detective or that leggy, single mother who looks like she just stepped off the cover of Vogue, shove her lover back, look him square in the eye and ask with unfettered disdain, “Are you kidding me? That’s it?!”
You could call the cinematic four second female orgasm (with penetration only) a male orgasm with tits. But the better view is that the quick, ecstatic humping we see time and time again stands in as pure male fantasy, something akin to the letters published in Penthouse, which even as a fourteen year old babysitter scanning the text surreptitiously, I knew to be pure fiction.
Can you imagine the relief that would flood this planet if women came as predictability, quickly, and with as little reliance on circumstance as men did? In four seconds with penetration only, in other words? Like they do in the movies?
I know women have these kinds of orgasms, and some women have them routinely (and I hope I don’t need to point out that to assert as much would require obnoxious gloating and very personal revelations?) For the sake of discussion, let me say that at no time have I come in four seconds while being pushed up against a restaurant bathroom stall wearing a pencil skirt with no stockings or underwear on. The point isn’t whether these brief climaxes happen or not — I know someone who came while dining out and enjoying a plate of shrimp, for God’s sake — but why that’s all we ever see, time and time again… the one version that just happens to be congruent with male fantasy.
I’m reading a well-written debut novel that features a lot of sex. In chapter after chapter, we are treated to a whole range of ways to have it, to enjoy it, and to be hurt and baffled by it. The protagonist is a privileged, self-destructive twenty-something who wanders through the sordid bedrooms of S&M, but also lies down in a fragrant eucalyptus grove and comes three times while enjoying the great California outdoors. At the author’s reading in Cambridge, her introducer focused a bit on the self-destructive and violent parts in a way that obscured the more subtle experiences described. Leave it to a guy to fail to mention the female protagonist’s multiple orgasms or her bland and recurring let downs.
I wish I’d said, “You don’t have to be a wanton 20-something hell-bent on self destruction to be bewildered or disappointed by sex. Hello? Anybody?!”
Instead, I raised my hand and asked if she wrote with pen or keyboard.
There was some pretty gross shit in there. But still, I’d rather read a passage about a feckless young woman being enamored with the vulnerability of a man’s ass as he walks away from their bed, even if they just shared a violent interchange that I can’t relate to at all than see that god damned four second improbable climax on the screen again. The fact that the novel’s passage is so wholly, explicitly, and credibly told from a female perspective makes it food for the soul. Scene after scene produced feelings of recognition and I doubt that I am alone in this.
The dog I walk does not look up at the passing geese. More and more I’m seasonally confused – remind me – what time of year is it?! He tugs at the leash and lunges, hackles raised, bark, bark, barking his head off at other dogs – sometimes, not always, and never for the dog walker. It’s an at least twice daily reminder that life is difficult. This is the dog I got. This is the life I got.
The embroidered pouch slung across my shoulder once held coins for wending my way – sometimes the change exacted by the ferryman in order to cross the dark river, sometimes as shiny offerings for Demeter when she missed her daughter the most. Now it stinks of beef. I offer up hot dog chunks to the dog in hopes of rewiring his canine circuitry into something friendlier, more manageable, more normal. “Please god,” I say at least twice a week. That I have zero faith in our strategies – strategies paid for with bloody dollar bills, by the way – I can only hope has no impact on their efficacy.
Arriving home, I look out over the still misty ground to what remains of the now abandoned play structure. There, I can just make out the black, spray painted letters that spell out: ‘ZERO FAITH’. Probably scrawled during one of the boy’s passages through middle school. Could be a skateboard brand. Or a song. Probably also a declaration. It makes me wonder: does misery pass through the body’s code, along with hair color and shoe size? Please don’t answer, I already know.
Notes: This was written to an ‘object prompt’ in a writing class. My object was a black cloth zippered bag embroidered with flowers.
A lament is a bit like a rant in that it resorts to stylized exaggeration. A rant uses the lens of anger and irritation, while a lament is more elegiac. In other words, don’t take this as autobiography. It’s more like sharing a dream.
The novel referred to is, “Wreck and Order” by Hannah Tennant-Moore. I plan to post reviews on Goodreads and Amazon (and maybe here) and so I am ruminating about the novel. I haven’t quite finished, but can certainly recommend it. It is a stunning literary debut.
Finally, after reading this to my husband, he recommended not posting– not because it includes stuff about sex, but because it is so grim. Well, this may be unwise, but I trust all 35 of my readers to hold this a certain way.