Series Curator: Jonathan Cardew
June Selector: Pat Foran
What’s rare, what’s bright, what’s new?
This is what we ask a new writer every month in search of the best hybrid, poetry, and flash writing from the previous month. In this edition, we catch up with Pat Foran!
Pat gives us a little selection of his favorite writing from June 2020:
“Yard Boy (for Kamau Brathwaite)” by Kwame Dawes, published on the website of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of English
Dawes wrote this remarkable tribute to Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite, who died Feb. 4, after George Floyd was murdered on May 25. The poem was published June 3 “in the spirit of protest and concern,” the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of English said in introducing the work.
In “Yard Boy,” the narrator’s voice is clear, the tell it in it unmistakable:
“I see no sin in bringing up the ugly thing, the bones in the corner,
the lies they tell …”
In the poem, Brathwaite’s voice is commanding, the cadence in it a river. Brathwaite’s message, to Babylon, is unmistakable. It’s also unmistakably now:
“… you who have consecrated
the mythology of the color of your skins, I don’t want
to hear you say you can’t begin to imagine what black people
are going through. Because you are lying. You not only can imagine it
but you expect us to imagine how it is possible for you not to imagine
something as simple as this.”
And, also, this: Say anything, anything at all, but “don’t ask me to feel / that pain of yours,” Braithwaite adds.
“Imagining is not hard. It’s human to imagine,
to empathize. It is inhuman to say you can’t begin to imagine.
It is so because it is a lie.”
As for (the) truth: Just tell it. In retweeting his powerful, in-and-for-this-moment work, Dawes said: “Sometimes a poem is one way …”
In this gorgeous “contemplation on the intimacy of breath and breathing,” as the magazine characterizes it, Crystal Wilkinson allows us in. In as in. We’re right there, like the space between the tones in music. Right there for the rhythms of life and not life, of sleeping and not sleeping. There during this time of COVID-19 and COPD and “underlying conditions.” There for the rhythms of days and dreams. Of mothers and missing. Of silence and secrets. Of whispers and whispering. Of love.
Graciously, Wilkinson walks and talks us through it — the breathing, and what it means (or could mean) to catch our breath. Or hold it. Perhaps release it. Wilkinson writes:
“I have wonderful memories of my mother. I wish these joyous images would slip into my vision, but we don’t get to control our dreams.”
“I want to scream at my partner, ‘I can’t watch someone else I love smother to death.’ But I do not say that. Silence takes up all the empty spaces in our house.”
“*That was before the sickness*, I whisper to myself.”
“A whisper is a sort of breath. A whisper is a secret. In my family we hold secrets. We hold our breath.”
Again, the rhythm. Of these sentences. Of the rinsing and repeating. Of the breathing and living. Of not breathing. Of not living. And, underlying, the rhythm of the present, this particular present. This now. And what we should remember:
“I can hear the birds chirping outside, but I can’t hear what my partner is saying. I am remembering my mother. I am remembering the long, tight hugs of my children, laughter echoing in bars and restaurants. I am remembering …”
Kathy Fish with a music-themed piece inspired by Joni Mitchell (“Help Me”) and Paris in 1976! I heard her read this story aloud before I read it myself, which was perfect because this story is a song.
I love the songwriting in this, and the movement; the one-line-at-a-time framing of its (sort of) verses, a telling and retelling that affords an almost-refrain. A refrain of memory, a refrain of revision. Of filling in blanks, or blurring them.
“There are two versions of this story …”
“In my version …”
“There’s a version of this story where …”
“In this version …”
There’s a menacing air in the melody line, and tension mounts with the repetition and reiteration. The matter-of-fact tone from the voice doing the telling is chilling: “It’s important to note we were very loosely supervised.” … “So I promised him I would.” … “And there weren’t two other men when we got there.”
What you know and what you think you know. What you remember and what you think you remember. What you tell and what you think you’re telling. And the song, ever the song, that braces and softly backlights everything. That song, the one that tells you so. As Joni whispers ‘neath this song-story’s pale moonlight:
I think I’m falling
In love too fast
It’s got me hoping for the future
And worrying about the past
It had been hard to “know what to say regarding George Floyd’s murder, or the uprisings that it has sparked,” Ismail Muhammad writes in this magnificent work. He’d run out of words to describe “the horror of such regularity.” Even if he did describe it, or try to, what good what it do to hear him describe it again? “What would you even be hearing?”
Instead, Muhammad describes the “sunken melancholy” of this 1963 Coltrane recording https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8iKZUBDrJQ, featuring McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Billy Garrison on bass.
Again, Muhammad asks: What are we hearing?
One thing he hears is that voice:
“Coltrane’s playing assumes the qualities of the human voice, sounding almost like a wail or moan, mourning violence that is looming, that is past, that is atmospheric, that will happen again and again and again.”
“…Coltrane’s saxophone sounds hoarse and enfeebled, until it collapses on the threshold of a hole in the ground.”
You can’t miss hearing the prescience (or the music) in Muhammad’s dimensional voice, either. He isn’t explaining anything, just as Coltrane isn’t, just as “Alabama” (which sounds like “a refusal of articulateness or articulation”) doesn’t. The recording does so much more. It “gives this unceasing immersion in grief a form,” Muhammad writes.
“In ‘Alabama,’ Coltrane asks us to bear witness to this hole in the ground, which is also a hole in America’s story, which is also a hole in the heart of black Americans. He wants us to grieve alongside him at this absence.”
Describing without describing. Telling without telling. We don’t need to be told. Do we?
The poem begins: “Here is a metaphor: You’re a girl and your father cuts you wide open. And for the rest of your life, when you meet a boy he’s staring right at the cut.”
This poem is an open heart that straight-up tells you. And tells you and tells you and tells you.
In sharing the poem on Twitter, Harris called it “one of the scariest” she’s published. She also called it “a love letter to survivors, and the people who love and believe in love.”
It’s stunning, this work.
The anything-but-metaphorical language. The anything-but-simple simple sentences. The anything-but-rhetorical rhetorical questions. I read and reread, and listened and re-listened, to “Here is a Metaphor” all month long. Every time I read or listen to it, a different moment stood out. At the moment, it’s this one:
“Remember, this is your father who tries so hard to love you and this is how he loves. These are the men that might love you and this is the way that they love. And soon, it isn’t your body at all but you’re a uniformed officer manning a post, trying to discern who is there to fix you and who is there to hurt you …”
Oh, this moment, too: “Imagine all the lives I could have had if I had known how to love or be loved.”
And, every time, this one: “Where was everyone?”
I’m grateful to Harris — and Davis, Wilkinson, Fish and Muhammad — for sharing such beautiful work.
Pat Foran is a writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His work has appeared in various journals, including Gone Lawn, Little Fiction, Milk Candy Review and Bad Pony. Find him at https://neutralspaces.co/your_patforan/ and on Twitter at @pdforan.
Logo Design: Olwyn Cardew
Adam Robinson lives in Atlanta where he runs Publishing Genius, a small press, and works as a publishing consultant.