Category Archives: prompt responses

Ms Wheatley and Ms Gorman

This short piece was written to a prompt in an AWA class.

I have come, unwilling, afraid. A sticky heat. An unmooring. A destruction. A pale lady pats my cheek, making bird sounds. “Ooh! Ooh!” She turns to a man, the colors of his jacket, a glaring affront after the dark hold, the grey sea.

“Susanna, no! Be reasonable, my dear.” He clomps along the dock, pats another on the head. “Like her. What about her?”

But Pale Lady kneels. Now my chin is in her hands. I clutch the carpet scrap around my shoulders. It is filthy. Whether she chooses me for good or for ill, is impossible to know.

+ + +

The man with the bag of coins approaches. He knows a buyer when he sees one. “She’s yours for a trifle,” he announces and husband hands over a few bob. It’s likely he, the seller, thought the girl about to die. Any money was better than none. And then Susanna Wheatley, her husband, and the newly purchased girl clambered aboard a carriage to take them the few blocks from the wharf to Boston manse.

The enthusiasm his wife exhibits puzzles John Wheatley until he realizes that the dark-skinned skinny girl looks to be just the age their Sarah was when she died. Seven years old. This girl is missing her front teeth, just as Sarah had been. Their poor, dear Sarah, taken by the pox before even her grown teeth came in. So this vanity purchase — what else to call it? — driven by a grief-soaked nostalgia, would have to be tolerated.

“Mary will teach her Latin,” Susanna gushed on the ride home. Her husband tucked his chin down to dissemble, the enthusiastic plan striking him as pathetic, absurd.

“We shall call her Phillis,” he said. “After the ship.”

A thriving servant. They refused the moniker, ‘slave’ — as if to do so made a difference. She, the slave Phillis, took to words like a duck to water. John Wheatley’s tolerance, a state he expected to be brittle and difficult to maintain, transformed into pride. The little darkie had something of genius about her and how well the white ruffles of her cotton lawn cap framed that Senegambian face! Her teeth grew in. She mastered English and not just Latin, but Greek as well. So proud, so possessive but willing to share were the Wheatleys, that they found a printer on State Street who rolled plates with ink, plates with their Phillis’s words on them and he, the printer, printed them. Poems.

A council was convened. John Hancock, a short man with a bit of bluster (to put it nicely), the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, Samuel Mather, others — their one purpose to determine the authorship of the folio. Surely, it could not be her? A slave! A collection of precise poems filled with lofty and literary images, language suitable for the illustrious poets of the age.

But, never mind all that for now! After gently, reverently nodding to Toni and Maya in the shadows, let us call forth that skinny black girl with a gift of the tongue — Phillis Wheatley — for she, too, must be on the Capitol steps today, beaming with pride.

Look at how this current orator’s yellow coat glows with promise! See how the red satin head band across her crown and the beads elegantly tucked among her braids, speak to the past that she calls upon us to repair. She, Amanda Gorman, can certainly speak with authority about the ‘belly of the beast’ — just as Phillis could have (but didn’t) lament the belly of the slave trading ship, the Phillis. Imagine being named after the vessel that ruptured and destroyed your former life! Imagine being poked with that perpetual reminder. “Phillis! Oh, Phillis! Come here!” “Phillis! Say it again, more slowly this time.”

If a ‘skinny black girl descended from slaves’ can position herself on the side of hope and mercy, surely we comfortable white people can do the same? Certainly, we must do better than we have done? We’ve all suffered these long-lasting four years, ‘bruised but whole,’ as the young poet says, a twenty-two year old who might as well be descended from Phillis Wheatley, herself. Seek harm to none she, Amanda, sang and: repair the past.

On a day we stumblers of the 21st century thought would never come, at this tattered end of a vulgar destruction that wrecked even the experience of time, let us take the words of the young poet into our hearts! Let us honor her lineage and what she says about the future! And then let us take her words back out onto the streets and continue the fight because as she, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, pointed out in incandescent glory — we are unfinished.

+ + +

* references: Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi; The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, America’s First Black Poet and her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.;a history docent in Lexington, Mass. who characterized John Hancock as “an asshole;” as well, of course: the inaugural reading by Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb.

** It is not true that Wheatley was published in Boston. No one dared touch her work. She had to go to England to find a printer.

Off the page

First my page, then Helen Macdonald’s.

This paragraph came at the end of a much longer piece about illness and caregiving:

The copper beech branches outside claw at the sky, barren but for a few tattered leaves. But even a tattered leaf speaks to season — one jiggling a little message in the bitter breeze this morning. All I have to do to find redemption — serious, nervous-system, Holy Spirit kind of redemption — is lift my head and look out the window. Blue jays my best teachers. Squirrels and puddles and scarlet holly berries, too.

* Bird sculpture by Maggie Rose.

one week out RANT

May I be peaceful. May I be free of inner and outer harm. May our nation be peaceful. May our nation be free of inner and outer harm.

On the fateful night, although not the decisive night, one friend plans to zoom with her Quaker community, another to block out all media. I say with a barking laugh: “Oh, it’s ice cream and Steve Kornacki for me!” Last time, I stayed awake. I drew a map of Florida and prayed over it. I saw the dismal, bleak, heartbreaking result before dawn, which by the way was not shocking because ever since a certain lanky G-man had made a catastrophic announcement about emails, I’d been sick to my stomach. Part of me knew already. Could not be shocked. Is it a good and decent sign that no such sick feeling attends these final days? Flutters of panic, passing visions of chaos in Pennsylvania, but no stomach ache.

Even with one of the Orange Buffoon’s Supreme Court appointments practically quoting the propaganda machine in an anti-democratic voting rights decision favoring republicans, I don’t feel sick yet. (There’s Gorsuch parroting Fox News about the need to have results on Election Night, adding “or soon thereafter,” just to sound lawyerly).

Isn’t it awful that “anti-democratic republican position” is now a redundancy? One Party Minority Rule is their game — and not a good solo party, either, but a regressive one with allegiances to business that will wreck the environment, with Federalist Society reasoning that tries to mask their sexism and racism, but can’t. Bye, bye voting rights! Bye, bye legal contraception (and you thought just abortion was on the line?) Bye, bye legal same sex marriage. Due process will have three months to fall during the next President’s 180-day Commission, that is, if we win and win big.

If we win and win big, the centrist party will have to turn a fire hose back on the other side of the aisle. We wont’ stand for less! All legal, of course, and perfectly Constitutional — “balancing” to “packing.” But really, why take it sitting down, with our heads in our hands?

Here’s the thing — AND IT’S NO SMALL THING — the right wing will revile whatever we do — even the centrist politician’s tip-toeing along, touting the virtues of incremental change — so we might as well be bold and decisive. Which is not to say I’m about to put a rose in my twitter moniker.

She makes calls to Wisconsin, another to North Carolina. The friend from Cleveland shares the podcast about white suburban women changing their minds (not my mind, mind). I gave a chunk of money to secureblue (again!) because who can say NO to President Obama? Also: made a gift to a Wisconsin voting advocacy group, because: Gorsuch. NO MORE MAIL!

Because a certain handmaid on a balcony stands ready to proselytize in jihadist extremes from our highest court. There she was in black with a tight smile, I’m guessing her only kind of smile, and pearls, standing next to the fat orange transgressive machine of destruction. Posing for Reality President TV. Will we be free of the beige, racist eunuch of a son-in-law, who’s speciality, for all I can make out, is failure? Well, and maybe crimes against humanity. Will we be rid of the Goya-posing reconstructed daughter that Daddy would’ve liked to fuck both before and after her many surgeries? Please say yes. Rid of them. Gone. Please say yes.

May those with sense be ready with a replacement health care plan, Supreme Court work-around built in. Then let the minority (may they be a minority!) bring 50-60 — or WAS IT 70? — bills to try and repeal THAT. McConnell closes up what some have called “the most expensive lunch club in DC” until November 9. Can you imagine being so cravenas to advance his justices with lightning speed and leave Americans in need hanging? Seriously, (and Mr. Necrotic Hands did more than take a fall, by the way), he knows his Stupid Prick of a leader is about to go down. He knows he himself hasn’t got much longer. Else he might not have taken such an inglorious and hypocritical approach to the Supreme Court vacancy. He’s grossly miscalculated, says one. It’ll backfire, many assert and I want to believe them.

Meanwhile, there’s joy at the polls. Trucks with music, activists with pizza. The moon is waxing. The leaves are falling. Babies are being born, dogs walked, prayers uttered. May they go down in flames. May the defeat be so decisive that not even the machinations of a certain MIA TOAD attorney general can pervert it.

May I be peaceful. May I be free of inner and out harm. May our nation be peaceful. May our nation be free of inner and outer harm.

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Notes :
Collage made with dianaphoto app and includes a paper collage made while in Italy (the Buddhist monk — probably from National Geographic) and an image of Mahershala Ali (probably from Vanity Fair). Prayer is from Buddhist tradition. Lanky G-man is of course, James Comey; the recent SCOTUS opinion concerned whether Wisconsin could count ballots post-marked before Nov. 3, but arriving some days later. The answer was no; the miscalculation of McConnell’s was explored in a long thread on twitter by @realhoarse and the thread is here.

Joy at the polls — you’ve probably seen

Where we are — fall equinox

All the junk that goes with being human — the sweaty parts, the sour refusals, jealousies ocean-sized and petty, the worm of veins as aging wears out the body. We try, though, don’t we? We try to manage expectations, to overcome the vast array of annoyances, to face our fears as we watch the burning hellscape that is America.

To get up and fight.

It might be our turn to fall. If so, it won’t be from from hubris, but from a toxic blend of corrupt greed and epic stupidity. Plus Facebook. While Oleg Deripaska funds aluminum plants in Kentucky, a passel of white people in Pennsylvania storms Target yelling about their freedom not to wear masks.

Huh?

Outside, a pounding — perhaps a new deck for a neighbor? Maple leaves ruffle in the wind. They will crisp and yellow and before long, fall and litter the fence line. How do your hold your suffering? With what secret thoughts or unsustainable compromises? Winter, as has been said, is coming.

By the time the neighbor’s new deck is nailed together and stained and holding chairs and company, the election will be upon us. The massive efforts to steal it, already in motion. If only this… if only that… How to do enough?

How many things have you lost of late? What of them matter? Where does Hope dwell in your body?

I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg would want us to hold fast to Hope with a ferocity past all reason. Don’t you?

Collage made WHILE in labor

Prompt: write for five minutes about all the junk that goes with being human.