Archive for November, 2009


The B. B. Blues

(PHOTO: jillysblog.com)

At first sight it left me flabbergasted. There I was, 14 years old, examining myself in the full length mirror in my parents’ bedroom — trying to make sense of my body.

I thought only women — well, black women — could have these. So what was I doing with one? I shuddered watching the small of my back slope into a big booty, made even more prominent in the pair of jeans with elastic waistband that I was outgrowing.

Some might call this idle rambling, while others may call it something else. But I guess this is a tale of the Big Booty Blues and how, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the most prominent feature that once set me apart from the pack would become a valued asset. But I was too young to understand that then, and naïve enough to fall for anything.

Just the idea of what passes for manhood is enough to send a teenage boy cowering and calling for his momma to console him through those growing pains. It’s a period that got me to questioning things: How could I come to grips with the idea that my booty may grow to resemble those shaken by bikini-clad women in almost every rap music video? Or what does it mean that my big booty evokes a history of oppression and degradation?

In her essay, “Big Booty Beauty and the New Sexual Aesthetic,” Myra Mendible illustrates this point. “Buttocks have long been a source of cultural capital in the West, serving as emblems of sexual, racial, or ethnic difference,” writes Mendible, who teaches media and culture studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she also chairs the Literature and Languages Department.

An example of this “cultural capital” was Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, who was born in 1789 of the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa. Perhaps she’s better known as “Hottentot Venus,” who was exhibited as a sideshow attraction around Britain during the 19th century. These “shows” involved her entertaining people by gyrating her nude buttocks, what Europeans thought were highly unusual bodily features.

If that made her unusual, what did it make me? S. Pearl Sharp, whose commentaries and essays have been broadcast on National Public Radio, gave me an idea of the source of my discomfort. In her essay, “A Tail Tale,” she mentioned the European myth of black people — mostly women — having tails as an explanation for our big booties.

This propaganda came in the form of “trade cards” in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “The postcards, which used Black images to sell products, sometimes showed Blacks with tails going about the business of selling thread and gadgets,” Sharp writes. “You can see a tail sticking out of Negroes in drawings on some of the early popular sheet music.”

(PHOTO: img.timeinc.net)

(PHOTO: img.timeinc.net)

And if this wasn’t enough, another form of irony surfaced as U.S. soldiers went abroad to fight both Nazism and racism during World War II. White soldiers were spreading rumors about their black counterparts having tails “in hopes that it would preclude European women’s natural attraction to the brothers,” Sharp writes. “Didn’t work. The veterans have revealed that some women would put soft pillows on the chairs so that the Black soldier’s tail would be comfortable.”

I was never rumored to have a tail, but like the Red-Nosed Reindeer, my prominent feature made me the subject of ridicule.

Rudolph was Santa’s ninth reindeer who was picked on by others in the pack for having an unusually red-colored nose that gave off its own light. It wasn’t until inclement weather almost threatened Santa’s chimney runs that Rudolph’s nose became significant. The light from his nose was powerful enough to illuminate the team’s path.

(PHOTO: arthur-jacob.com)

It wasn’t until college when my big booty became an asset in getting the attention of some sistas. According to Mendible, there are a range of terms that both affectionately and derogatorily refer to the butt. “’Booty’ holds the promise of illicit pleasures,” she writes. While “’Fanny’ desexualizes the…behind, turning it into a sweet but inconsequential body part.” She continues: “The command to ‘get off your fanny’ is less hostile than ‘get off your ass.’ A ‘tush’ is small and tight, a ‘rump’ is round and fleshy, a ‘can’ is fat and lazy.”

And that’s where I make the switch. While ‘booty’ “holds the promise of illicit pleasures,” I’m not one to boast about his moves in the bedroom. Since what I have is far from a “fanny,” a “tush,” or a “can,” it would be appropriate to say I have a “rump.” It’s what causes a group of women in passing to slow their strut, turn back and admire before giggling and whispering to one another as they go on their merry way. It’s also what’s grabbed in the heat of passion. Lurk the message boards long enough and the conversation is bound to pop up.

“Seriously, I love men who kinda have a big butt,” bobosensei, who describes herself as a 27-year-old woman, says in a post on freetrainers.com. “The guy I am seeing now has a big rear even though he’s in shape…. I love to see a pair of thighs hugging their pants more than a 6 pack on their tummy.”

On a forum at connectingsingles.com, Sommerauer71, of Austria, couldn’t agree more. “I hate bony, skinny arses, that are all flat,” she says in a post. She likes something “neat, looks fab in a pair of jeans and one of those you just want to grab all the time.” When a comment is made about fearing guys with big butts are well endowed in other places, tainogirl, who started the post, reassures her sistas that it could be a good thing. She says, “Can’t the poor man have a little extra junk in his trunk?”

I don’t know how I would have taken that question at 14.

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Orphan of Silence: Charles Simic

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Philip Simic)

Editor’s Note: This essay was first published in the Fall 2009 issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly (thanks to Dan Vera for the invitation and opportunity to try my hand at an essay).

My first encounter with Charles Simic’s work wasn’t an introduction to the person. Prior to that encounter, his name seemed to be something that breathed and moved on its own—popping up in conversations with other writers, and making its appearances in various journals. It is also emblazoned on the spines of numerous collections of poems.

His first poems were published in 1959, when he was 21. His first full-length collection of poems, What the Grass Says, was published the following year. Since then he has published more than sixty books in the US and abroad, twenty titles of his own poetry among them. His poetry collections include That Little Something (2008), My Noiseless Entourage (2005), and Selected Poems: 1963-2003 (2004), among others.

Simic is a recipient of several honors that include the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1996, a Griffin Prize in 2005, and he was the 15th US Poet Laureate (2007-2008). Charles Simic reading at the National Book Festival. photo credit: Library of Congress I would later learn that Simic was born on May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The 71-year-old is also an essayist, translator, editor and professor emeritus of creative writing and literature at the University of New Hampshire, where he has taught for 34 years.

One might think, with Simic being such a prominent literary figure, that I should have come to his work much sooner than 2009. But the late Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Gyoryi defined discovery as an accident meeting a prepared mind. At the time of my accidental meeting with Simic’s work, I was browsing online journals, looking for places to submit my work when I came across Simic’s poem, “Doubles,” and was hooked.

Simic’s “deliberately simple structure and diction in his poems” as a way of presenting difficult subject matter is widely praised by critics. Among them was Librarian of Congress James Billington who described Simic’s work as a collection of “stunning and unusual imagery”: “He handles language with the skill of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible, often meditative and surprising.”

In “Doubles,” the idea of humans “inhabited by an inner family of selves,” or having multiple personalities, is made accessible through his use of plain language. Through most of the poem, it’s clear that the speaker and the doubles are separate individuals. What Billington cited as the “flashes of ironic humor” in Simic’s work starts with the fifth line of the second stanza to the end, when the doubles become the speaker’s “many selves”:

The last time anyone saw me alive;
I was either wearing dark glasses
And reading the Bible on the subway,
Or crossing the street and laughing to myself.

Another example of Simic’s “ironic humor” is in his poem, “Eyes Fastened With Pins.” Defying easy categorization, some of his poems offer a surreal and metaphysical reflection while others offer grimly realistic portraits of violence and despair. Vernon Young, a Hudson Review contributor, noted that the common source of Simic’s poetry was memory:

Simic, a graduate of NYU, married and a father in pragmatic America,
turns, when he composes poems, to his unconscious and to earlier pools
of memory. Within microcosmic verses which may be impish, sardonic,
quasirealistic or utterly outrageous, he succinctly implies an historical
montage. His Yugoslavia is a peninsula of the mind…. He speaks by the
fable; his method is to transpose historical actuality into a surreal key
…. [Simic] feels the European yesterday on his pulses.

Simic once said, “Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them.” Those experiences include his formative years spent in Belgrade. His family evacuated their home several times to escape indiscriminate bombing. The atmosphere of violence and desperation continued after the war. Simic’s father left the country for work in Italy, and his mother tried several times to follow, only to be turned back by authorities.

In a 1998 interview, Simic told the Cortland Review how those experiences affected his writing:

Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on
me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of
others. I’m still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed
in my life.

When he turned 15, Simic’s mother arranged for the family to travel to Paris. He spent a year there studying English in night school and attending French public schools during the day. Simic, along with his mother and brother, sailed for America and reunited with his father in the Oak Park suburb of Chicago, where he enrolled in high school. They lived there until 1958. Three years after, he was drafted into the US Army, and in 1966 he earned his Bachelor’s degree from New York University while working at night to cover the costs of tuition.

While Simic feels “the words never quite equal the experience behind them,” Tim Green, editor of Rattle, noted that poetry not only allows the reader to step into the poet’s shoes but also the poet’s body, mind, and moment in time. Green went as far as to define the craft as “an art of ventriloquism.” In that case, Simic and his readers work “symbiotically to create an acoustic and linguistic experience” every time his poems are read.

Eric Williams, an Artful Dodge contributor, observed the narrative thread that binds the images together in Simic’s work. He noted that the readers are hit with “a dazzling series of loosely connected images.” Often times the final line of Simic’s poems connect everything.

The Antioch Review‘s Diana Engelmann noted the “dual voice” of Simic’s poetry that speaks both as an American and as an exile:

While it is true that the experiences of Charles Simic, the ‘American
poet,’ provide a uniquely cohesive force in his verse, it is also true that
the voices of the foreign and of the mother tongue memory still echo in
many poems. Simic’s poems convey the characteristic duality of exile:
they are at once authentic statements of the contemporary American
sensibility and vessels of internal translation, offering a passage to
what is silent and foreign.

Simic discussed his creative process in an interview on Artful Dodge:

When you start putting words on the page, an associative process takes over. And, all of a sudden, there are surprises. All of a sudden you say to yourself, ‘My God, how did this come into your head? Why is this on the page?’ I just simply go where it takes me.

Further Reading Online
http://timothy-green.org/blog/2009/06/why-tribute-african-americans/ http://www.enotes.com/contemporary-literary-criticism/simic-charles http://www.enotalone.com/article/2256.html http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=6290 http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/27 http://www.wooster.edu/ArtfulDodge/interviews/simic.htm

Charles Simic Bibliography
What the Grass Says, 1967
Somewhere Among Us a Stone is Taking Notes, 1969
Dismantling the Silence, 1971
White, 1972
Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, 1974
Charon’s Cosmology, 1977
School for Dark Thoughts, 1978
Classic Ballroom Dances, 1980
Austerities, 1982
Weather Forecast for Utopia & Vicinity: Poems 1967-1982, 1983
Unending Blues, 1986
The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems, 1989
The Book of Gods and Devils, 1990
Hotel Insomnia, 1992
Dime-Store Alchemy, The Art of Joseph Cornell, 1993
A Wedding in Hell, 1994
Walking the Black Cat, 1996
Jackstraws, 1999
Night Picnic, 2001
A Fly in the Soup: Memoirs, 2002
The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems, 2003
Selected Poems, 1963-2003, 2004
My Noiseless Entourage, 2005
Aunt Lettuce, I want to Peek Under Your Skirt, 2005
Monkey Around, 2006
Sixty Poems, 2008
That Little Something, 2008
Monster Loves His Labyrinth, 2008

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was sent to me by Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media. She requested that I repost this article, a study on the H1N1 virus, since the information could be beneficial to my readers. The original article was posted here.

JAMA Study: H1N1 Hits Hard at All Ages
New America Media, News Report, Paul Kleyman and Viji Sundaram, Posted: Nov 05, 2009

Evidently, the swine flu upholds an old American tradition, after all: It doesn’t discriminate by age — especially when it comes to death.

Previous reports suggesting that older H1N1 flu victims are less prone to severe outcomes than children and young adults have been called into question by a new report published November 3 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The article states, “In contrast with the common perception that pandemic 2009 influenza A (H1N1) infection causes only mild disease, hospitalization and death occurred at all ages, and up to 30 percent of hospitalized cases were severely ill.”

Although one-third of those hospitalized were ages 18 or younger, the authors write that people age 50 or older have the highest rate of death once hospitalized.

“What our study shows was that once you were hospitalized, if you were elderly, you have a higher risk of dying,” said Janice K. Louie, of the California Department of Public Health, Richmond, Calif. Louie study appears in JAMA.

Louie, and her fellow researchers examined the records of the first 1,088 hospitalized and fatal cases due to the pandemic in California. Although seven percent of this 18 or younger died after hospital admission, the death rate was 18-20 percent — about one in five — for hospitalized adults 50-plus. Overall the death rate was 11%, or one in nine.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that the results of Louie’s study matches with one done by his agency. H1N1 affects all age groups, including those over 65.

“If they get it, it can be every bit as severe as seasonal flu, consistent with other data,” Frieden is quoted as saying at a news conference.

To avoid having apparently mild cases escalate into serious illness, Louie and her colleagues advise clinicians to closely monitor those 50 or older, who turn up with an flu-like symptoms regardless of initial results.

Once hospitalized, adults, especially those with potentially aggravated underlying conditions, “should be carefully monitored and treated promptly with antiviral agents.”

Interestingly, the authors noted that besides the usual risk factors, such as asthma, a new one appears evident among those hospitalized — obesity. They call for more study of this finding.

Findings of the new study do not change the CDC’s recommendation for vaccination, which focuses on younger people, those with such chronic conditions as asthma and pregnant women.

What they do suggest is that doctors should not dismiss the risks to older patients, said Frieden.

To contact Louie, call Michael Sicilia at 916-445-2108 or e-mail Michael.Sicilia@cdph.ca.gov.

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