6th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 3 :: RACHELLE CRUZ on DIONNE BRAND
HAPPY POETRY MONTH, FRIENDS AND COMRADES!
For this, the 6th Annual iteration of our beloved Poetry Month 30/30/30 series/tradition, I asked four poets (and previous participants) to guest-curate a week of entries, highlighting folks from their communities and the poets who’ve influenced their work.
I’m happy to introduce Janice Sapigao, Johnny Damm, Phillip Ammonds, and Stephen Ross, who have done an amazing job gathering people for this years series! We’re so excited to share this new crop of tributes with you. Hear more from our four guest editors in the introduction to this year’s series.
Hungry for more? there’s 150 previous entries from past years here! You should also check out Janice’s piece on Nayyirah Waheed, Johnny’s piece on Raymond Roussel, Phillip’s piece on Essex Hemphill, and Stephen’s piece on Ronald Johnson’s Ark, while you’re at it.
This is a peer-to-peer system of collective inspiration! No matriculation required.
Enjoy, and share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator
“I count myself in that tradition of writers who take up the hard questions, who are never satisfied with our condition, who want to see equality in the world and who will push their ideas and their language and their minds to embrace that.” — Dionne Brand
I was maybe a junior at Sarah Lawrence College when Suzanne Gardinier, my poetry professor at the time, handed me a copy of Dionne Brand’s No Language is Neutral. I had just finished telling Suzanne during office hours that I wanted ferocity in my work, a force that gave little to no fucks. It was fall, nearing winter, and I was braving my rage. Particularly in poetry. In her office, winter light streamed through the window. The small lamp next to her desk washed the room burnt orange. I was a brown scholarship girl in a whiteass school. She pointed to this poem:
“In another place, not here, a woman might touch something between beauty and nowhere, back there and here, might pass hand over hand her own trembling life, but I have tried to imagine a sea not bleeding, a girl’s glance full as a verse, a woman growing old and never crying to a radio hissing of a black boy’s murder. I have tried to keep my throat gurgling like a bird’s. I have listened to the hard gossip of race that inhabits this road. Even in this I have tried to hum mud and feathers and sit peacefully in this foliage of bones and rain. I have chewed a few votive leaves here, their taste already disenchanting my mothers…”
Then she read the second half of the poem aloud:
“I have tried to write this thing calmly even as its lines burn to a close. I have come to know something simple. Each sentence realised or dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a side. What I say in any language is told in faultless knowledge of skin, in drunkenness and weeping, told as a woman without matches and tinder, not in words and in words and in words learned by heart, told in secret and not in secret, and listen, does not burn out or waste and is plenty and pitiless and loves.”
I held the book, feeling my fingers freeze. I got the “pass hand over hand her trembling life.” I got the “told in secret and not in secret.” I had a great amount of shame writing about myself, my family that felt brutal and real.
Born in Guayaguayare, Trinidad and living in Toronto, Canda, Brand’s work about the (post)colonial relationship between the island and the U.S., France and Great Britain shook me as I researched the Philippines and its colonial past. I understood Brand’s “another place, not here” and the whistling hollow of that place. Brand wrote about her work and her place as a poet, “I count myself in that tradition of writers who take up the hard questions, who are never satisfied with our condition, who want to see equality in the world and who will push their ideas and their language and their minds to embrace that.”
As I read and reread this poem over the years, I noticed the repetition of “I have tried,” “I have listened,” “I have chewed,” — the utter exhaustion. The exhaustion of respectablity politics, of shame. Of tamping down a force, a truth that is undeniable. A history that is undeniable. “I have tried to write this thing calmly even as its lines burn to a close” — the poem here can’t help but seethe with or without the poet’s hand.
As I read this poem at a recent “Writers Resist!” event at UC Riverside, I realized that these lines were not only fierce in their truth-telling and sense of epiphany; they were also calling writers, liars, historians, presidents, out: “Each sentence realised or dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a side.” As if the poem were asking, inciting: “which side are you on?”
Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live, something dangerous, something honest.”
In Brand’s essay “On Poetry,” she writes “Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live, something dangerous, something honest.” And I think of the students I teach who pause in between writing to look at the jacaranda flowers falling outside of the classroom window; who consider and assert their black and brown and queer lives in their poems; who ask strangers, dancers, and YuGiYoh! tournament gamers if they can perform their poems on a Friday night — this is “how we live, something dangerous, something honest.”
And I think of joy, too. The postcards I receive in the mail from the diaspora, the poems I struggle to write, and I think of Brand’s breathless generosity. These words, our words, do not “burn out or waste and is plenty and pitiless and loves.”
RACHELLE CRUZ is from Hayward, California. She is the author of God’s Will for Monsters, which won the 2016 Hillary Gravendyk Regional Poetry Prize (Inlandia, 2017), Self-Portrait as Rumor and Blood and co-editor with Melissa Sipin of Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology of Philippine Myths (Carayan Press, 2015). An Emerging Voices Fellow, a Kundiman Fellow and a VONA writer, she lives, writes and teaches in Southern California.
Originally published at www.theoperatingsystem.org.