I am trying to say his neighborhood is as tattered and feathered as anything else, as shadow pierced by sun and light parted by shadow-dance as anything else, but they won’t stop saying how lovely the ruins, how ruined the lovely children must be in that birdless city.
This excerpt from Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here” strikes up an implicit conversation with Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Nikki-Rosa”: “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black,” and as Giovanni’s poem goes on to say,
and I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth.
May’s poem argues against those who continually say “how lovely the ruins / how ruined the lovely / children must be in that birdless city.” There are birds in the troubled neighborhoods and the vast urban spaces where children live. The poem suggests that nature, beauty, avatars of freedom, or just plain ol’ crows, wrens, and sparrows live in places too easily and too often dismissed as mere slums or war zones.
I am trying to say his neighborhood is as tattered and feathered as anything else.
May sees the dangers (war, difficult history, violence) but wants readers to see the lived experience (a child feeding birds) and the possibilities within the spaces that others discount as “ruined.” But the poem also points to the similarities between the supposedly ruined neighborhoods and those unseen, and presumed better, neighborhoods. There are birds in the neighborhood of May’s poem. There are children and families. An eye blind to the neighborhood’s birds is an eye blind to the neighborhood’s children, and that kind of blindness is a form of violence. May struggles: “I am trying to say,” as if the poet is chronically misunderstood or continually forced to speak through the wrack of distorted perceptions, as if poetry grows more difficult when speaking to blindness.
Then, after a day of looking at spiderwebs, at the small jewel-like beetles that roamed the blackberries, at minnows in the stream, and at water striders on its surface, a day of wading knee-deep in cool water and picking mint and watercress and red-orange lilies along with berries, I went home with my bounty.
In this excerpt from Solnit’s memoir, luscious winding rhythm and accumulating detail build and swell until they leave no doubt that Solnit has indeed returned home with a marvelous bounty. And yet how unimportant the sentence makes the material abundance that Solnit gathers, deflating the visceral and sensual memory of looking, wading, and foraging with a flat statement: “I went home with my bounty.” Bounty seems the far lesser gift when compared to the pleasures in the flowing incantation of lived experience and observation, a day when one has simply lived, enjoying other living things. “I went home with my bounty.” Do the words, delayed and coming at the end of a series of clauses, almost drag, as if the speaker is reluctant for the day to end, reluctant to return home? And Solnit’s choice of the poetic “bounty,” does it feel abstract? Distancing, as if the writer is pulling away, closing the door on a wonderful day, insisting that her readers come along too? But of course, such plans are foiled. Readers go back and reread the words just for their pleasure, and perhaps a lucky few even grab walking shoes and head outdoors to look, touch, or gather a bounty of their own.
The thing about percussion, which remains true today as children still pound fists on lunch tables to stretch a simple beat into something greater, is that all it takes is a surface and rhythm—a closed fist or an open palm and something merciful enough to be trampled upon. Without drums, slaves would make beats on washboards, available furniture, even their own bodies, finding the hollow and forgiving spots with the most echo. They would stomp and holler. The voice, too, is its own type of percussion—particularly when it is used to rattle the sky on a hot day, when there is endless work resting at your feet. The work is also an instrument—the way the wood can be chopped is a percussion and the march to the work is a percussion and the weary chants, when laid close enough to one another, can be a percussion.
Bear in mind That death is a drum Beating forever Till the last worms come To answer its call, Till the last stars fall, Until the last atom Is no atom at all, Until time is lost And there is no air And space itself Is nothing nowhere, Death is a drum, A signal drum, Calling life To come! Come! Come!
Marchers all over the world draw attention to insufferable violence: George Floyd . . . Elijah McClain . . . Brionna Taylor. . . . Feet stomp the pavement. Voices rap, knock, pound and break the silence. Bodies push against other bodies, making anger, outrage, and sorrow into a drum: Enough! Enough! Enough!
This month, A Space for Image centers on drums and images of drums. In Go Ahead in the Rain Abdurraqib recounts how enslaved people (denied access to drums by law) turned their bodies, their labor, and their lives into percussion instruments. The drum is first an instrument, a mode of communication, and then a drum is resistance: a refusal to be silent. The ability to drum and to make chaos into rhythm—something controlled, shaped, imagined—gives the weary a balm for weariness. And finally, Abdurraqib’s discussion shows that drums form community. Small voices and lived experiences placed side by side, shaped into a rhythm, and into percussion, evoke belonging: you are not alone. This is what we are together. Percussion transforms.
Brooks sees books—and thus language, story, poetry, the author’s voice—as drums. By reading, we turn our minds into drums. Or maybe reading, like writing, is a tool for producing percussion? For making music? That is, if music is chaos organized and reshaped to make pleasure, inspiration, or—you know—make us jump up to boogie or sing, sing, sing.
Hughes imagines the large, metaphysical ceaseless drum of death, which is not the drumming that most folks want to hear. What Hughes calls a “signal drum.” And a signal—a gesture, action, or sign to deliver information—now seems an especially apt image. Life too is a drummer, a percussionist, which Hughes also knew.
Listen to it closely: Ain’t you heard something underneath like a—
The forces that made the drumming that Hughes heard in his time shape the drumming heard now. In “Dream Boogie,” Hughes knows, however, that some readers are not ready to hear it. The drumming frightens.
Hey, pop! Re-bop! Mop!
Marchers everywhere chant, lift the drums of their voices, pound the air with the drumbeat of names—Floyd . . . McClain . . . Taylor . . .—each name a signal drum, a talking drum, and so too, the deep pain that gathers to fill our television screens, city halls, neighborhoods, streets. Together, what might have been only quiet voices has grown louder than the silence—voices raised not to make noise (uncontrolled, chaotic, indeterminate, babel) but percussion.
Spring has been cold but with newness on the buds and this summer if it’s anything like the last one I’ll need to tiptoe barefoot on the porch to avoid crushing
the snails; when it happens anyway, the sound is so tragic, something so glasslike destroyed, I have to bend down and apologize out loud.
There are no fireflies here, but back home, where our mothers still cry, there are no snails; just slugs, which as you know, are easier to kill without knowing.
JNH: Michael, I know that you teach.How do you teach imagery?
Michael Hurley: I think rooting the image manifestly in the senses is a wonderful start—to make those tendrils grow out of the fingertips, get them to meander and spin and search for a trellis. Teaching is so mysterious, it can be hard to tell at times whether we’re climbing or just winding around some ideas which is okay too. One of those ideas we wind around might be remembering that each image is not an isolated spark but the work of a dense and busy maker—the imagination. Sure, the metal is glowing—but look at that blacksmith’s hands. And how do you teach imagination? I don’t think you can. And I don’t think you need to. But I do think you can emphasize it, examine it, exercise it, and advocate for it. I try to do that. First through naïve emphasis on process over product, much in-line with teaching art to young children—it’s a matter of experiencing the making and gaining joy from that, squishing the mud in your digits. This alone opens up a space for risk, play, and experimentation that moves the writing from the merely creative toward the fearless imaginative. We wander caves not knowing what’s inside. The difference I think has something to do with the degree of immersion.
I want to know what in all it’s been whispering about prosperity all this time about freedom coming in waves like heat off tar I search the Illinois skies for funnels stand three days a week in front of twenty two students stand like a strip of its not personal like a strip of black electrical tape pressing wire to white wall I listen for the storms the storms they say sound like imagine you are facing a train
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s “the river it shines pure white” looks at the rural spaces of central Illinois, a landscape broken subtly and not so subtly by racial division. The poem builds to a closure layered with images that suggest destruction, threat, vulnerability, and charged restraint: a strip of black electrical tape pressing wire to a white wall. But strip has so many meanings: a narrow piece of fabric, an act of undressing, a comic strip. If something is stripped, it is left naked or empty. A bullet can be stripped, making it lose its original surface. The speaker stands “like a strip of its not personal” and like the pressure-sensitive tape used to protect materials that conduct electricity. The poem deftly weaves the poem’s mantra—the claim that the racism the speaker has encountered is not personal, not directed at the speaker—through a series of broken lines, strips, in effect, of words. But of course, the thought that it’s not personal is also self-protection, a form of self-defense that helps the speaker endure the circumstances. Yet it is impossible to feel safe while pressing a wire to the barrier and architecture that whiteness represents to feel safe: I listen for the storms. Midwestern tornadoes are fierce, destructive forces that leave ruin in their wake.
This is not you, but your body forced to feign prayer. A curbside confession: Forgive me officer, for I have sinned. On bended knees, arms raised, hands reaching for what little you know of god, you assume the position. Cruciform. Know what you have always assumed: you are just one breath away from breathlessness. This is not you, but your body made brilliant in orbs of blue and red light. This is not you but your body. Shrouded in Siren-call. This is not you but your body. . . .
Using visual imagery, these opening words of García’s prose poem, “Suspect,” merge a police stop with the act of Catholic confession, Christ’s crucifixion, prayer, and the Christ sacrificed, in Christian faith, for human sins. An odd, intriguing mash-up between the procedurals of police authority and the liturgy (public worship) and rituals of faith. García enacts a poetic transubstantiation: the suspect’s body transforms into the body of Christ. But the relation of power between the officer and the suspect also produces a transubstantiation, more secular, that alters the suspect’s humanity. The rituals of stop and frisk, or apprehension and arrest, turn the suspect from a thinking, sentient humanity into a mere body, physical structure, meat, or, if the worst happens, a corpse. Fortunately, the speaker can go on, and the end of the poem points toward a modest hope: “A bottle of glue in your pocket to teach your daughter that what’s broken can be mended.”Even so, this poem requires a nearly impossible faith to believe that the procedures, rituals, and power-relations that dehumanize us, and literally bring us to our knees, will ever be fixed so easily.
Let my confession start here: I too am innocent & black but millennial, my fear academic & secondhand. Like the yellowed photograph in the New Yorker of two men hanging like piñatas above a crowd, the teenaged girls dressed for cotillion.
Images & stories. Strange fruit.
Barry’s speaker admits that the lynching and mob violence familiar from the first half of the twentieth century is distant history. How can the speaker even find metaphors to address such distant horror now? A child’s party game? Violence rewarded with sweetness? The formalities, gender reinforcement, and class-consciousness of a cotillion? The poem suggests the difficulty of trying to connect with the country’s difficult racial history, and that trying to do so perhaps can even get surreally comic.
Barry’s juxtaposes “Images & stories” with “Strange fruit.” On one hand, the poem alludes to Billie Holiday’s plaintive vocals and Abel Meeropol’s poem protesting the lynching of African American men and mob violence, and to the horrible metaphor that dead and violated bodies of African American men are fruit. Who would taste such fruit? Who would purposefully grow the fruits of hatred and injustice? But this line also suggests that the images and stories—of racial violence, racial injustice—are also strange fruit. History has grown into the dread pictures and stories that we cannot escape. We are automatically removed from an image, outside the story. We are individual readers, listeners, viewers, at times producers, and more largely we are members of a national audience and at a distance. Maybe the poem suggests that history (stories and images) that has grown distorted, unnatural, or unfamiliar brings an additional violence and harm to our imagination. Empathy requires intimacy.
We are two men on a park bench in Palm Beach oblivious to the two men
who start their truck with that boy from the bar inside dragging him
in the dark to the fence strapping him with a rope to a post in Laramie,
Wyoming, where he freezes and dies over five days. My dear, it is late.
The Flagler Museum is shut. Stay with me. Remain here with me.
Because of its hierarchical image structure, Spencer Reece’s “Interlude” destroys me.
Restrained by geography, yet omnipresent, the speaker is one of two gay men sitting together “on a park bench / in Palm Beach oblivious to the two men….”
Shamelessly smitten with each other, the two lovers are oblivious to what’s around them. It’s the start to a familiar romantic image. Or is it?
A secondary image develops; complicates the primary image: “oblivious to the two men // who start their truck with that boy / from the bar inside dragging him….” Two men intent on love dissolves into two men intent on violence.
It’s no accident the first punctuation (comma) appears, like a signpost’s stake, after “Laramie” in couplet three. Given the how, what, and where, one familiar with the details has now identified the players: Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson, and “that boy,” Matthew Shepard—a gay man too far from the lovers in Palm Beach.
Shepard “freezes and dies / over five days,” ending the secondary image and also, finally, the first sentence. Then, in a forced attempt to lighten the mood, an abrupt volta returns the poem to the primary image: “My dear, it is late. // The Flagler Museum is shut.” Eschewing omnipresence, and some omniscience, the speaker returns to his lover—to do what? How can he still claim love’s oblivion and its tenderness after witnessing, at least psychically, a gay man’s murder?
Although the mood’s less ominous, make no mistake, the speaker’s breath has shifted—the last couplet contains three short sentences. Barely sentences, the last two imperatives (“Stay with me. Remain with me.”) are laconic, cautious, and measured.
In the wake of the elegy’s interlude, love grows sober, fiercer. The speaker understands what happens in Laramie can happen in Palm Beach; happen anywhere.
Like a kestrel or a contrail. The hero’s death, The prize, elusive quarry of his life, Stands stock-still in her coven tracks in snow And turns, one ear tuned to the creek’s far bank, One dished towards him. Her unstartled gaze Beads on him like a sniper’s sights, until At the clean report of a cracking poplar branch, She leaps away like luck, over rapid water, And snowfall scrims the scene like a mist of tears, Like a migraine, like sweat or blood streaming into your eyes.
Stallings makes winter’s well-trod canvas (ending, death, transition) paint a setting for her poem. She also makes winter personify grief and physical pain. The poem’s last line triggers its final and unexpected transformation when the reader (or the speaker) bears the blood of wounds and thus directly participates in the hero’s metaphorical death and hunt for glory. We are the foolish hero?
Yes! A grand, extravagant epic simile for starting out the New Year. How not to admire the transformations that the poem’s epic simile sustains to its very end? (The simile at the beginning of the excerpt invites readers to compare a hero’s death to a kestrel or a contrail, just one of many amazing moments in this poem.) But Stallings does nothing by half-measures. The glory and vanity of pursuing a hero’s death transforms into a deer, and the hunted deer wondrously into the hunter, and then again into chance. The poem figuratively alters nature so that it is no longer merely a victim of human violence but has a danger of its own (the gun suggested by the crack of a clean report). Stallings refuses to separate hunter from hunted or to distinguish violence. And pity our hero.His great glorious “hero’s death,” that chance to matter, to be remembered, and thus escape time and death, leaps away.
Suddenly, the poem feels different. Maybe it’s not just about the hero’s death, but the death of heroes. Perhaps maintaining these mythologized personas enacts a kind of violence. Hunting for heroes, believing in them, can wound or hamper our sight.
In another life, I once held a palm-sized chip of driftwood shipworms had laced in just this way. I can still peer through it
in my mind, but I cannot raise it up, here, today, in this quiet light. Yet, sometimes it seems as though I have only just now set it down,
beside the thin gold bangle my mother gave me, on a little table, beside the iron bed in which I used to sleep. Yesterday a student said, I do not know what you mean when you say image. My stories, she insisted, are only made of words.
In “Postscript from the Heterochronic-Archipelagic Now” readers follow Graber’s mind through long winding lines of associative connections. Graber moves easily from personal reflection and lived experience to the socio-political (a child behind a chain-link fence grasping—“not a mother’s hem / but the silver corner of a Mylar rescue sheet”).
In the excerpt above, Graber’s craft moves the reader’s eye from the specificity of a driftwood chip to the poignancy of a childhood memory, images that grow even larger when she juxtaposes them against a student’s befuddlement. What is an image?
Cover image of The River Twice
The poem answers the question. Images—shaped with concrete detail and sense memory—anchor time and enable our imaginations to transform lived experience. But the poem also shows that images are not reliable, they are not events that we control, though they often connect to and trigger other images. Graber’s movement from the worm-riddled driftwood, which like memory is no longer living or rooted, but a broken fragment with parts missing and eaten away, to a childhood memory of valued belongings, the maternal love, and the safety of home gives another lesson in making images. Poetic images are stronger when they are not static. The driftwood chip allows Graber’s moves through time. But the image of the chip changes from a miscellaneous natural object riddled with shipworms to a possession that a child keeps safe. But of course, the poem’s childhood is only a set of images: memory: emotional driftwood. Time is a shipworm.
The difference between a detail and an image, Franz Wright writes, is resonance: images evoke or suggest memories or feelings and other images. They reverberate.