November 18, 2015
Arms of Dreams
His finger can feel the nibble of a fish
through the ink in a story about fishing
printed in a book 100 years ago while
he reads and pretends to fish our pond,
but do his arms hold a book better than
a fishing pole or my soprano voice? He
lifts books like blind men hold babies—
at least that’s how I imagine him—he
rubs my dancing hip, sways my steps,
reads into the notes of each song I sing.
Or—they would if he would talk to me
like I was a white girl from Cambridge.
But I only use his arms in dreams.
I spy on you each day you fish the pond.
You’re in white school and white church
so I know how stupid and ugly I seem.
I don’t deserve the colors of happiness,
so should I whip myself to deserve
your hands on my ugly black skin?
I hate arms that I can never use:
I surrender to their charms
but only in dreams.
I’m no pickaninny slave, runaway girl,
no kitchen wench, or laundry scrubber.
I can read, ride a horse, and swim good—
I can play four Mozart minuets on piano,
twelve four-part Gospel songs of praise,
and I wrote five songs to sing in church.
You’d have to be color blind and dumb,
you’d have to hold your eyes on my eyes,
you’d have to hold your eyes on me.
Then I’d have a real use for your arms.
November 9, 2015
At the pond he’s still as a crane,
reads a book of red leather fine as
a Bible from a white man’s church.
Why does that story roll his eyes?
He turns. Does he feel my stare?
He doesn’t notice his cork dance
until his fishing rod falls and he
dives to save it before it swims off.
Fish hold no magic for him—words
fill his eyes. Would he find magic
reading my lips, a negro girl?
His lips twist and talk to the book—
his eyes love a story I cannot know.
My eyes love a boy I can never kiss
so, in my dreams, my arms hug
all the library of books he owns.
Does he read of white fish boys
who kiss brown fish girls even
when Papa bites their tails off?
I could be a brown fish girl, too—
wave my tail at a white fish boy.
I’ll dance to your stories, if you
solve the mystery in my fins.
I wade behind cattails in the pond
until I’m close enough to read lips.
He calls for Sophia, not for me, yet
the mud warms between my toes.
I’m a book of a thousand pages he
can turn forwards or back again.
If I can flutter his pages as he traces
my lines with his tutored fingers,
I can wink at him in this chapter,
and the next, and the next.
(Art by Anne Abrams)
November 5, 2015
Warm In A Manger
A stream of puddles leads to a barn—
in a Salem nor’easter any roof is heaven.
I take off my wet dress. Austin turns away:
“Like many vacant farms north of Boston”
(Vacant skin begs for warm blood, my boy.)
“Mr. Dana says property claims caused the
Salem Witch Trials—many war widows
owned land the Boston brahmins coveted.”
I take off my chemise. Austin looks away.
“Witches can’t own land in Salem,” he says.
(Take off your clothes, Austin, show skin.)
“I’ll miss him when I become a Canadian.”
Austin shivers like a trout in a waterfall.
Watch me tease him—this will be fun.
You can look now! Austin turns and trips,
sprawls on a straw stack, eyes full moon.
I leap on his chest—my eyes new moon.
I pull a blanket over us—our own fort.
This won’t hurt a bit, my sweet boy.
My kiss forces all fear to its knees—
I say no to playing wife, but I pledge
to occupy any real estate he names.
Borders close to immigrant songs
on the wind, in the dark, from gods
of holy friction, our muddy skins.
(Art by Anne Abrams)
October 30, 2015
Papa Fires My Flight
Why we flee Cambridge could kill us,
yet a buggy ride in a storm could kill us.
I shiver my bosom on his arm in the rain,
glad to flee the rage of my father’s church,
fired from its job as a choir piano player—
not hired, I was blessed to shut up and play.
Now I’m happy to dance into a wider world
with my darling reading dancing white man.
This sheepskin blanket is not warm enough,
not dry enough, not free enough tonight, but
it abuses us with enough giddiness to risk
this buggy ride, soaked in rain in Salem.
We crash, break a wheel, mount the horse.
Is this Jesus-humbled enough for a witch
who dances naked to her own sad music?
Papa preaches against the evils of dancing
so he’s a hypocrite if he doesn’t fire me, but
is calling your daughter a witch a holy thing?
Is believing gossip a closer walk with God?
Brother says if I eat a barrel of skunks and live,
it proves I’m a witch, but if I die, it means not.
Either a witch or a dead ghost—what a choice.
I told Papa I know now what slavery is like—
that made his face red—he tried to hit me.
Think they’ll stop us at Canada’s border
to ask if I’ve eaten a barrel of skunks?
I showed the sopranos off-rhythms to my song,
clapped my hands, and tapped my feet like this.
(I toe Austin’s boot, until he shows me a smile.)
Any lewd dancing in Raina’s gossip is a lie:
I save my lewd dancing for you, reading boy.
I won’t beg forgiveness from anyone at church,
for rhythm is a joyful noise in my God’s music.
Outlaw it in school, outlaw it in church, but not
in my heart—my salvation’s beat lives here—
wrecked in Salem, soaked in rain, but so alive.
January 10, 2013
Painting by N. C. Wyeth
The fire lit in me when I first read the novel as a boy, was
extinguished when I finished my own novel, Tesora.
Reading it now, however, allows me to sail again,
back to my own boyhood days—to find the treasures
of adventure and good writing.
From Treasure Island, by Robert Lewis Stephenson:
“Livesey,” said the squire, “you will give up this wretched practice at once. Tomorrow I start for Bristol. In three weeks’ time—three weeks!—two weeks—ten days—we’ll have the best ship, sir, and the choicest crew in England. Hawkins shall come as cabin-boy. You’ll make a famous cabin-boy, Hawkins. You, Livesey, are ship’s doctor; I am admiral. We’ll take Redruth, Joyce, and Hunter. We’ll have favourable winds, a quick passage, and not the least difficulty in finding the spot, and money to eat, to roll in, to play duck and drake with ever after.”
November 25, 2012
Anaïs Nin on Embracing the Unfamiliar
It’s the personal insecurities of leadership which lead to paranoia, the need to control the freedom of individual and social personalities, and finally to mass violence. It’s been true throughout history from Atilla The Hun to Obama. It’s the responsibility of each artist to sieze his or her own piece of space, whether it’s geographic or psychic, and to produce art within his or her own chaos of freedom. “A room of one’s own,” yes?
The men who built America were the genuine physical adventurers in a physical world. This world once built, we need adventurers in the realm of art and science. If we suppress the adventure of the spirit, we will have the anarchist and the rebel, who will burst out from too narrow confines in the form of violence and crime.
September 5, 2012
I’m pleased to announce that my friend, Kimberly Elkins’ story: “The Awful Wondering” is now published in the Iowa Review. It’s not available online—you have to subscribe. But you can read some things in the issue here:
Here’s her bio:
KIMBERLY ELKINS’s work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Best New American Voices, and the Chicago Tribune, among others. A finalist for the National Magazine Award, she received a fellowship from the Houghton Library at Harvard for research on her novel, What Is Visible, forthcoming from Grand Central. A visiting lecturer for the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Hong Kong, she has an MFA from BU and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
August 6, 2012
My novel, Tardy Son, is a semi-finalist for the Faulkner Novel-in-Progress Award. Tiny whoop.
April 11, 2012
I’ve switched the points of view of my two latest novels to first person, because it works to bring out the personalities of the main characters. Vanessa Veselka has some good ideas about this and she also points out some good examples to learn from. Here is an excerpt from her interview with Rob Hart. She is the author of Zazen.
Rob Hart: What attracts you to the first-person narrative?
Vanessa Veselka: I love the speed and the edge. It reminds me of what lit did to me when I first started reading. From Dostoyevsky to Melville, Celine—to all the modern classics of identity and manhood like Happy Baby, Fight Club or things like that. It drives. You hear the voice of the narrator and inside that, you hear your own. It’s a drug. What it lacks in sweeping majesty it makes up for in intensity. I like intensity.
RH: Which authors, contemporary or classic, do you believe are exceedingly adept at writing compelling first-person narratives?
VV: I mentioned some of my favorites above, but also The Lover by Marguerite.