Category: Review


(PHOTO: Stock Image)

A therapy session goes wrong when Wade, an angst-ridden 16-year-old, pulls his therapist, Myra, into an oral sword fight after accusing her of “mind-fucking” him like he imagines she does her other patients.

To gain his trust, Myra discloses some personal stuff about herself, which Wade uses against her.

“You’re married for six years and don’t have any children?!” he spits before assuming Myra’s the cause of that for not sexually exciting her husband. That got a gasp from the crowd that packed a downstairs banquet hall on a chilly Saturday evening. This was Myra’s response: “Are you mad that your father used you for an excuse to stick around for 16 years?” Ouch!

That’s a scene from Bridget Dease’s work-in-progress, Advocates, one of eight plays  written by the Literary Media and Communications (LMC) department’s 12th graders at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. A crew of professional actors, directed by Renana Fox, helped showcase those scripts through stage readings that bookended the LMC’s annual dinner theater March 23 at Chevy Chase Baptist Church.

“High school can be one of the most demanding, stressful, and anxiety-inducing points in a person’s life,” notes Fox, alluding to this year’s theme “Out of Darkness.”  She continued: “These students have used their personal experiences, culture, education, and imagination to build a lot of great characters. My hope is that in seeing their work begin to come to life on stage they will be encouraged to continue developing and creating and pursuing whatever lights their fire.”

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Kelli Anderson)

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Kelli Anderson)

Those flames also burned for the teachers and parents who, over veggie fajitas with salsa and chicken tortilla soup, enjoyed an evening of laughs and a bar with beer, wine, soda, and water that, in part, made the evening worth the $25 tickets ($10 for students).

Another part was the string of plays with subjects ranging from a bi-racial wife’s adversarial relationship with her German mother-in-law (Madison Hartke-Weber, ‘13); to the sexual tension between a liberal arts college poetry professor and a prospective student (Rashawnda Williams, ‘13); to a love triangle that involves a woman in her first trimester of pregnancy, her boyfriend, and her sister (Dayanira Hough, ‘13).

“What I find so beautiful about theater is that the difficult and surprising stories are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves,” Fox observed. “And these young playwrights have quite a lot to say.”

Saturday’s fundraiser was also an opportunity for the LMC to announce the TEDxDESA event that’s less than a month away (visit our TEDx page here and go here to like our Facebook page). This independently organized event (“(W)Rite of Passage”), which resulted from the LMC’s collaboration with NYC-based nonprofit Writopia Lab, involves LMC students, with Writopia LabDC Scholastic Award winning writers, talking back to area and TED writers that include Kyle Dargan, poet and American University professor, and Writopia Lab Director Rebecca Wallace-Segall.

TEDxDESA also features performances, readings, talks, and video work about the urgency and role of writers in today’s society. Right now, I’m working with my sophomores and juniors on creating content that talks back to TEDx writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the danger of a single story) and Elizabeth Gilbert (your elusive creative genius).

imageThat came up in my conversation with a parent at last Saturday’s event. The father, a professional painter that teaches sporadically in a Low-Residency MFA program for Visual Arts, asked about my creative process as a writer and listened as I recounted what I recalled of Gilbert’s talk: that ancient Rome believed the genius was a divine entity inhabiting the walls of artists’ homes. The Romans, according to the presenter, thought that genius helped the artists create their works.

I like that theory because, as Gilbert said: “If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know?”

The painter-parent smiled at that, but thought it narcissistic to consider our creative spirits “geniuses.” I told him that Gilbert used that word and “genie” interchangeably, and that what we do when our wells go dry—me doing writing prompts and him copying a portrait he’d already painted—was our way of rubbing the genie lamp, calling out that creative spirit. To that he nodded.

And just as memorable was the intermission, when we played a student-produced mockumentary of the LMC department. The 16-minute video opens with the theme song from NBC sitcom The Office. Check it here:

In addition to my department chair (Mark Williams) and colleagues (Koye Oyedeji, Kelli Anderson, Olivia Drake, and Cerstin Johnson), these special thanks go out to Rory Pullens (Head of School), Tia Powell (Director of Artistic Affairs), LMC Parent Group, Chevy Chase Baptist Church, Horwitz Family Foundation, Joe Green (Director of Institutional Giving at The Ellington Fund), and The Cheesecake Factory (we appreciated the donated cheesecakes!).

Randall Horton’s *Roxbury*

Cleveland Heights, OH: Kattywompus Press, 2012. 33 pages. $12.00.

(ARTWORK: Randall Horton and Kattywompus Press)

It was a Sunday evening nearly a decade ago when I first met Randall Horton. We were downstairs in the Teaism Penn Quarter Restaurant at 8th and D streets NW in Washington, DC. That night in 2003, I waited to read on the open mic that followed the slam, in which Randall competed for a spot on what was then the DC/Baltimore team (which later split).

When his turn came up, Randall wowed us all with his poem “Little Shorty,” a tale of a boy the streets swallowed and spit back. “Get the cream, Little Shorty! Get the cream!” he said during his moving performance that night. I had to approach him afterwards and let him know I enjoyed his piece.

Get the cream, Little Shorty! Get the cream! Those words echoed in my head that night. I said them jokingly when I ran into Randall at the city’s venues over the ensuing years when we became friends and Randall’s frustrations grew each time he didn’t make the slam team.

I hadn’t thought of his poem “Little Shorty” as possibly being autobiographic until the release of his chapbook Roxbury (Kattywompus Press, 2012), an excerpt from his yet-to-be-published memoir Father, Forgive Me. I bought and had him sign my copy when he was in town last month.

Randall Horton’s story of incarceration blew me away, especially the part about his father loving him enough to cry before the courtroom during Randall’s sentence modification hearing. Despite his son stealing from him and repeatedly breaking his family’s heart, Mr. Horton loved Randall enough to plead for his freedom before one of the toughest judges in the justice system.

Roxbury, which gets its name from the prison that housed Randall for five years, reveals the man he once was. “There are folks already in my housing unit who can vouch for my street credibility,” Randall writes, “that I am a legendary dude who hustled and played as fair as one could in the cutthroat game of hustling.” I would’ve avoided this person at all cost.

That cutthroat hustle found Randall as an undergraduate student at Howard University during the early 80s. Not even his two-parent household could deter him from going after the hustle. Despite a loving and supportive family, Randall dropped out of school to smuggle cocaine from the Bahamas to Washington, DC.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Dr. Randall Horton, a poet and assistant professor, is a recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and a Cave Canem fellow.

But this isn’t a glory story of drugs, women, and fast cars. In fact, it’s the opposite. Roxbury’s a fast-paced cautionary tale that immediately whisks the reader away:

If I had known what I know now, I would not have
pulled into the next office complex. I would not have driven up
the concrete ramp and parked on the second floor, but fate is an
uncalculated science, and so I did. My girlfriend and I would not
have exited the light blue van and taken the back stairwell that lets
out into the second floor carpeted hallway, nor would we have
discussed the quick score for ten grand we were about to make,
but we did….within five minutes of picking the
door lock we knew time had been wasted. Going in and out of
each cubicle of the accounting firm revealed cheap technology
with no resale value. We didn’t find the high-tech state of the art
laptops we needed to score big. So we retraced our once eager
steps back down the carpeted hall to the stairwell, down the stairs
to the garage, and back to the van. When I opened the door to the
van, glanced out the corner of my left eye and saw a flood of
plain-clothes police officers rushing towards us with guns in the air
yelling Freeze muthafuckas freeze. Before muthafuckas echoed off the
garage walls—I was gone.

The chase lasted a short while before the officer caught Randall. Upon entering Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI) in Hagerstown, Maryland, Randall introduces the reader to some interesting characters, who he has to align himself with if he’s going to survive. Among them is Randall’s first cellmate Deboe, who’s from DC and was six years into a 60-year sentence for murder.

Randall does a great job of showing how guys feel each other out with small talk. In this case, he and Deboe each try to see if the other guy earned his street cred. Here’s how it plays out:

I can tell Deboe is suspicious of me…I am suspicious of him as
well. After menial small talk, the conversation begins with how
dudes sold fake televisions in the box to unsuspecting victims over
by the Shrimp Boat on Minnesota Avenue. Deboe mentions The
Black Hole and Celebrity Hall hosting all the live go-go parties
back in the day… We both reminisce the heyday of
Portland Avenue and the Jamaican wars during the late 80s. This
barrage of questions and answers continue until I am determined
to be legitimate.

One legit thing about Roxbury is Randall’s story of redemption, which didn’t stop at the courtroom. That night I met Randall in 2003, he was a student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), wrapping up his undergraduate studies. From there, he went on to earn an MFA in Poetry from Chicago State University and a PhD in Creative Writing from The State University of New York (SUNY) Albany.

He’s the author of two books of poetry, The Definition of Place and The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street, both from Main Street Rag. He’s won awards for his work and is now assistant professor of English at the University of New Haven. He’s come a long way from Roxbury and what poet and memoirist Reginald Dwayne Betts called “the hard roads that damn near broke him…”

What I like about Roxbury is that it’s poetic. I’ve never heard anyone make go-go music the means to restoring sanity while also acknowledging that it’s the off-spring of work songs—that is, until Randall Horton. Check it:

Night is a deafening silence filling every inch of the
housing unit with opaqueness. Every stir amplified by the isolation
of a closed cell door. The beat-thump begins simple enough. It is
an intense percussive, drawing on West African influences, called
go-go, the indigenous music of the District of Columbia. Two
doors down in Cell 19, Sebastian got the go-go fever induced by
mail call after shift change. Five years into an eight-year bid, his
girlfriend, who stays in Clifton Terrace, informed him she will no
longer vigil the memory of his street heroics. His image has faded
from the landscape and so would she. There is no question the
right fist is balled, driving the cadence like a conductor calling out
to a crew of Gandy Dancers laying eight foot railroad track: Get a
grip in ya hand, whoa na, work wit it chillin, whoa na.
The left hand, palm
open, balances the driving narrative of gut-bucketed pain, much
like a mauling driving six-inch spikes into the crossties: Let it swang
on down, whoa na.

To order Roxbury from publisher’s site, click here.

Monica Hand’s *me and Nina*

Farmington, MA: Alice James Books, 2012. 78 pages. $15.95.

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

The world continues to remember Nina Simone (formerly Eunice Kathleen Waymon) as a storyteller through songs, whose body of work created a legacy of compassion, empowerment and liberation. At the time of Simone’s death on April 21, 2003, she was already among the 20th century’s most extraordinary artists.

But, to poet Monica Hand, this song griot was something else. Reading Hand’s poems, it’s clear that Nina Simone is the center around which a carousel of memories revolves in Hand’s new collection of poems me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012). And I have to agree with poet Terrance Hayes calling this book “a debut fiercely illuminated by declaration and song.”

Those declaration songs aren’t overshadowed by Nina Simone’s presence. Instead, Hand masterfully weaves Simone’s bio throughout her own. We get glimpses of Simone in the poem “X is for Xenophobia”:

like the x
in a geometry problem or hex
I don’t understand their pain
why they act like chickens in a pen
as if they felt at their nap
broken bone
why they want me alone hobo
for preaching hope
for reminding people we are Ibo
not bane
cause of soullessness they took an ax
to my happiness I want to open
the door play classical piano
now my hipbone
slips to Obeah
I am the unanswered z y x

(PHOTO: Courtesy) When Nina Simone died on April 21, 2003–according to Nina Simone’s official site ninasimone.com–she left a timeless treasure trove of musical magic spanning over four decades from her first hit, the 1959 Top 10 classic “I Loves You Porgy,” to “A Single Woman,” the title cut from her one and only 1993 Elektra album.

Hand’s speaker in “X” might be alluding to Simone’s critics unable to file her musical style. “Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing, and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in,” Simone wrote in her 1991 autobiography I Put A Spell On You. “It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz.

“On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.”

The one thing Nina Simone struggled with musically was mixing politics with popular music. “That was the musical side of it I shied away from,” according to her autobiography. “I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from people it was trying to celebrate.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

That was until “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s tribute to Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the four girls killed in the Alabama church bombing. The South banned Simone’s song and performances.

Hand’s speaker brings us from the South to New York City to see Nina Simone perform that song at the Apollo Theater in the poem “Black is Beautiful”. That night, Hand’s speaker and her friend “D” are rocking their “crushed-velvet jackets blue-jeans high heels” to see Nina Simone’s performance:

Nina is singing Mississippi Goddam. Me and D we look at each other and nod.
Nina plays the piano a long time as if she forgets we are there. But we are.
Nina goes Holy roller African all in one wave of her hands ragtime to classical
and back again. We are in her groove our seats rocking with our bodies. Our
young female bodies, big Afros and big dreams. The balcony is a smoky black
sway. The orchestra white. Someone fidgets. Another one coughs. Nina stops.
Quiet. Her voice a swift typhoon. You could hear their hearts hesitate. Stop.
Nina chuckles then returns to her song. Mississippi Goddam. It’s different now.
Bruised. Me and D we look at each other and nod.

Reading those lines, I wondered if the fidgeting orchestra members were uneasy from the song itself or that they were the only white people, it seems, in the Harlem venue. In either context, the white band members’ tension is akin to that of the white folks who were in the movie theater watching Rosewood, a movie by John Singleton that told the story of an almost unknown incident in a small Florida town.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The false testimony of a white woman accusing a “black stranger” of raping her set off a mob of angry white folks who hunted down and lynched most of the black men in town. According to rumors, the movie caused such a stir that white folks, attempting to avoid any assumed confrontation afterwards, snuck out of the theater before the movie ended.

In me and Nina, Monica Hand doesn’t shy away from confronting sensitive topics. “In these poems she sings deep songs of violated intimacy and the hard work of repair,” Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander writes of Hand’s book. Hand touches on that violated intimacy in the poem “Everything Must Change,” a poem in which Rufus, a boy from the neighborhood, invites Hand’s speaker to go see Nina Simone perform at the Blue Note.

As the poem goes, Rufus, who’s polite and respectful in front of Hand’s mother, turns out to be a jerk. Under the guise of going back to his parents’ spot to get some more money, Rufus lures Hand’s speaker into his basement bedroom. There:

he starts begging me to give him some—just a little he says. I’ve never done it before and/ I’m not scared just not really interested. I want to go. See Nina Simone. He / begs real hard. Even gets down on his knees like James Brown: Please, please,/ please. I give in. Stop his begging. It’s over. Quick. No big deal. I don’t feel a/ thing.

They never made it to the show. Part of repairing that hurt is not seeing Rufus anymore: “[…] when my mother asks what happened/ to him I just shrug my shoulders or tell her I think he’s dead. Just like, I tell the/ kids at school who ask where’s my daddy.”

In the poem “Daddy Bop”, Hand’s speaker gets herself into a mess of trouble trying to repair that hurt from her father. “Knew him like a fifth of vodka/ he tasted good with sugar and lime/–left me with the shakes/ so if you see me on the street/ acting like a bitch–/ I’m just missing my daddy,” according to Hand’s poem. “Lost all my self-respect/ in bed with some men some women/ who smelled like my daddy/ if they could love me, maybe he would too/ just understand everybody needs/ some respect he was my daddy”.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Monica Hand is a poet and book artist currently living in Harlem, USA.

And just when things seem hopeless, Hand’s speaker turns to Nina Simone for answers through her six “dear Nina” poems and the section “Nina Looks Inside,” which sets itself apart from the rest of book with white text on black pages.

“These poems are unsentimental, bloodred, and positively true, note for note, like the singing of Nina Simone herself,” according to Elizabeth Alexander.

Poets Terrance Hayes and Tyehimba Jess also agree. “She [Monica Hand] shifts dynamically through voices and forms homemade, received and re-imagined to conjure the music (and Muses) of art and experience,” writes Hayes.

After reading me and Nina, I felt that Jess best summed up this collection. “Monica A. Hand sings us a crushed velvet requiem of Nina Simone.” Whoa! That’s the best way to put it. “She plumbs Nina’s mysterious bluesline while recounting the scars of her own overcoming,” Jess continued. “Hand joins the chorus of shouters like Patricia Smith and Wanda Coleman in this searchlight of a book, bearing her voice like a torch for all we’ve gained and lost in the heat of good song.”

I don’t think I could’ve said it any better.

Tidal Basin Review Doing Big Things!

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) Click the artwork to view larger image.

If you’re like me, you probably wondered what brought on the unseasonably warm weather a couple of weeks ago. And, like me, you’ll see the cause of that was the scorching new issue of Tidal Basin Review (TBR).

I’m honored to have some work alongside writers who get down on this issue’s theme of beauty. In his poem “Essence And Object,” Kyle Dargan’s speaker, looking back on his childhood, is talking to his lover about the ways TV socialized him and other black kids:

We were born then wrapped
within the age of prancing

images. Before I could be
weaned from the picture box—

its bright screen, bass, relentless
colors—hip hop commenced

proselytizing that I should want you
swollen, that I should want you

plush […]
[…] pelvis more

elephant head than arrow.

Damn! And, as a grown man, the speaker still struggles with that socialization, “trying to see the shapes/ etched in my head, the bodies,/ as the beauty I expect/ to shatter beneath.” But his informed understanding of how this “suckled ideal” misleads many youths helps him prevail. He rejects what he calls “a gene-coded hunt/ for figure-swells and heft” with this realization:

This ethereal tug I feel
between my groin’s creases,

I need it to be instinct and nothing
a television taught me of want.

[…] Let me be merely mammal—sniffing,
groping—let me crawl from thought

towards your fragrant, burdened hills.

I’m with you on that, bruh! I’m also with TBR’s mission of propelling the current artistic landscape. “Our vision is to amplify the voice of the human experience through art that is intimate, engaging, and audacious,” according to TBR’s vision.

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) TBR's editors, clockwise from top: Truth Thomas (Poetry), Tori Arthur (Fiction and Non-Fiction), Fred Joiner (Poetry), Marlene Hawthrone (Photography), Randall Horton (Editor-in-Chief), and Melanie Henderson (Managaing Editor).

In its young existence, TBR, which came about in 2010, has already established itself as a journal that’s as much about community as it is craft. This past August, the journal took action on behalf of the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries when it co-organized a reading and book drive at the Marvin Gaye amphitheater in DC’s Watts Park.

That Saturday event kicked off a series of book drives around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore called the event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said on the day of the event. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

(PHOTO: Thomas Sayers Ellis) The Black Issue!

And TBR’s online advocacy is just as active. Their past issues have challenged the post-Black notion, while highlighting DC’s go-go scene. The theme for the next issue is cultural pride. These are TBR’s ways of creating a space that supports a full representation of the rich American landscape.

There are many highlights in TBR’s “beauty” issue. But, in the interest of time (I want you to go over to tidalbasinpress.org and check them out!), I’ll end with Jacqueline Johnson’s “Hair Stories,” a poem in which Johnson’s speaker cherished those times she got her hair done in her aunt’s kitchen. Here’s the second part of a four-part poem:

Hours later the ritual would begin;
a towel thrown across my shoulders,
Dixie Peach run all around edges of my hair.
Your boys jack knifing through the
kitchen missing the hot grease cans.
You always started at the back,
hot comb hissing like an angry panther.

Your technique impeccable, mother of
three sons, never burned me.
Edges so rough, so uncooperative,
so niggerish, they always reverted back to
their African ways at the first sight of rain.
Despite bending my ear beyond its capacity,
hot iron teeth left  burn marks,
African American tribal scars.
Each kink a bouncing black cloud
becoming a language
running from Aunt to niece.

You can read the rest of Johnson’s poem, or check out the entire issue, by clicking here. Past issues are available here! (Click on the cover of each issue to see inside.) Check out the Basin Rising newsletter. You can purchase a print version by emailing tidalbasinpress@gmail.com.

Interested in subscribing to Tidal Basin Review? Click here to get started.

Makalani Bandele’s *Hellfightin*

Detroit, MI: Willow Books, 2012. 65 pages. $14.95.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

There’s a lot of music in Makalani Bandele’s debut Hellfightin (Willow Books, 2012). The title’s a subtle bow to the Harlem Hellfighters (or the 369th Infantry Regiment) that fought in both world wars I and II.

As the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, according to sources, those men continued blazing the way for future Black soldiers.

In that spirit, the musicians that Bandele honors—Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, and Elvin Jones, to name a few—blazed the way for younger musicians, such as Eric Lewis and DC’s Young Lions.

This 65-page collection of poems is one long jam session that took me back to those nights at DC’s HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues.

Before it moved from 14th Street NW to the other side of the city, I use to pay either $8 or $10 and could sit through two sets of the Antonio Parker Quartet or bob and twist to the amazing Eric Lewis killing the keys, while appreciating every moment of it.

And I’m not even a jazz head—well, not one as serious as Bandele, whose passion for the music exuded through Hellfightin. Reading this collection was like walking down a hallway, where each poem was a door opening to a memory of every past encounter I’ve had with jazz. One door opened on a Thursday night in 2007, when Herbie Hancock just happened to be chilling inside the now-defunct Café Nema on U Street NW.

That night Mr. Hancock was there checking out his friend, Allyn Johnson, who plays keys for the awesome Young Lions band, a dynamic trio of well-traveled and humbled thirtysomething-year-old brothas. The intensity of Bandele’s hellfightin’ poems matched our anticipation that night for Mr. Hancock to play something. We all chanted, “Herbie! Herbie!” but he just waved us off.

I remembered Nema’s owner, who earlier took pictures with the jazz legend, throwing on his coat and walking through a corridor of friends who shared his excitement in Mr. Hancock blessing the spot with his presence. Then something happened. While jamming out a fast-paced numbered, Mr. Hancock moved to a bar stool closer to the band. The music got all up in him and he nearly fell off his stool twitching to every note.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Noticing that, Allyn Johnson smiled up at his friend and mumbled something. According to accounts from people who were near both men, Johnson asked his friend, “You want some of this?” To which Mr. Hancock replied, “I don’t mind if I do.”

The crowd erupted and the owner threw off his jacket and ran back to the bar. Everyone snatched out their digital and cell phone cameras snapping at Mr. Hancock jamming with the other two Young Lions members.

Makalani Bandele matches that excitement with his poem “and the jam session extends after hours and into early morning at 63 hamilton terrace,” which–coincidentally–is about Herbie Hancock:

Herbie on piano heavy/ ebonies,         few ivories./ you can no longer see
The blues,/          but hear long              aloof chirps/ of brass.
and the jam session extends/          after hours          night shine/          trades
eights     with the shadows/ of box elder branches          playing/          in a
zephyr.

And for all of jazz’s improvisation, Bandele’s a formalist. In fact, he’s a genius, who not only successfully uses the contrapuntal (a form of poetry that’s read as either one poem or two poems in their distinct columns) to mimic jazz on the page but to also show that while the notes seem to fly wildly from horns and pianos, there’s still an order to the process.

Bandele also gives us an intimate moment with these musicians. His persona poem “introspective, eric dolphy” reads like a transcript of a treasured never-before released interview with the alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist:

(PHOTO: Makalani Bandele) Makalani Bandele

a certain mind/ leaves its footprints along land’s end          thanking sea spray,/          it charts flight/ of gulls          on staff paper, their insistent calls/          called back          in gust:     the flute’s shrill,/ the breadth of horizon.     In my fingers/ how i know     time-/          signatures swirl          loose/ boundaries of decibel.     i logged thousands/ of hours   in—
clarinet lessons./          father added a room/          to woodshed in—the wayfaring/
has made my blood and teeth clean/         but sweet          in my fingers

Makalani Bandele delves deep into America’s history of disenfranchising people of color, especially African Americans who were once considered three-fifths of a person. In Hellfightin’, Bandele sees jazz as a blueprint for correcting these past injustices (“i like my government like/ i like my improvisation: mellifluous,/ full of organic changes/ progressions”):

to right the constitution,
then rewrite it, extempore.     give it
arms, legs, hands, feet, teeth, a mouth—shake
your psyche to it—we making us
a whole black man  (from “jazz in the key of democracy”)

This poetic and musical journey through history speaks to Bandele’s craft as a poet and musician. In his past life, he was an ordained minister who pastored a church in North Carolina. Now, he’s moved his church to the page.

If you read this book, don’t be surprise if you hear Joe Nanton and Johnny Hodges playing as Ivie Anderson sings, “It don’t mean a thing, if ain’t got that swing.” Just know that Hellfightin is definitely swinging.

(PHOTO: Nancy Bratton Design)

I don’t know about the other attendees, but I’m still swooning from Jan Beatty’s reading at Split This Rock 2010.

That year marked the second time for the biennial literary festival that Sarah Browning started as a way of providing a “permanent home for progressive poets.”

Since it started in 2008, Split This Rock has attracted high-profile participants such as Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Dennis Brutus, Mark Doty, Carolyn Forche, and Sharon Olds. The inaugural festival even got Washington Post reporter David Montgomery to pay attention.

“The poets are in town. Dozens — no, hundreds. Hundreds of poets. Can you imagine?” Montgomery wrote in his article Averse To War: “They are everywhere.

“In long, disheveled columns, they are prowling Langston Hughes’s old neighborhood around U Street NW. They are eating catfish at Busboys and Poets (where else?) and quoting Hughes, Shelley and Whitman back and forth — ‘Through me many long dumb voices’ — over the hummus and merlot.

“They are signing fans’ battered paperbacks and shiny new ones bought on credit (autographs!). They are squinting from the stage into the cathedral depths of a filled high school auditorium, amazed at the turnout. They are sharing with preschoolers the miracle of closely observed turtles and infinity in a drop of water.”

(PHOTO: Jill Brazel Photography) The late-poet Dennis Brutus reading at the inaugural festival.

The poets at the 2010 festival–which included Chris Abani, Cornelius Eady, and Martin Espada–came at time when the U.S. was in two wars, dealing with struggling economic recovery, and a host of other social and environmental ills. Despite those issues, the artists are still optimistic.

And Sarah Browning’s shining the bat signal again this year for all “poets, writers, artists, activists, dreamers and all concerned world citizens” to meet in DC March 22-25 and demand social justice, “imagine a way forward and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change,”  according to Split This Rock’s website.

Among those poets and dreamers at the 2010 conference was Jan Beatty, who gave a hell of a reading from her third collection Red Sugar. I didn’t see her coming like a southpaw’s punches. Other poets who brought down the house included Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, and Toni Asante Lightfoot.

They’ll join for four days of readings, open mics, Poetry in the Streets, and a book fair. The theme for this year’s conference is “Poetry by and for the 99%!”–a shout out to the nationwide occupiers protesting from their tent towns.

“As people’s movements ignite here at home and throughout the world in response to economic inequality, political repression, and environmental degradation, the festival will consider the relationship of poets and poetry to power and to the challenges to power,” according to the web site.

(PHOTO: Lynda Koolish) June Jordan

This year’s festival, marking the 10th anniversary of June Jordan‘s death, will honor the life and work of the late-poet, essayist, teacher and activist.

For more information or to register now, go to http://www.splitthisrock.org.

(PHOTO: Erin Patrice O'Brien) Major Jackson

The speakers in both Major Jackson’s 11-part poem “Urban Renewal” (from Leaving Saturn) and Audre Lorde’s Coal are both city dwellers coming to terms with the changing landscape. They fear possibly being displaced and mourn the once familiar structures city officials left “crumbling to gutted relics.”[1]

The speakers aren’t alone in their suffering. “A chorus of power lines/ hums a melancholic hum,” while the “sun dreams the crowns of trees behind skyscrapers.”[2] And, though the long-term effects of displacement are just as unsettling, both Jackson’s and Lorde’s speakers know that “the heart is its own light.”[3] But is it enough to keep them optimistic?

Jackson’s speaker attempts to find that out in “Night Museum,” part one of “Urban Renewal.” The speaker puts the block on display from the mother “straddl[ing] a stoop of brushes, combs,/ a jar of Royal Crown” to everyone else “that festive night the whole block  sat out/ on rooftops, in doorways, on the hoods of cars.”[4] Stevie Wonder was the soundtrack for that moment blaring from speakers above “Bullock’s Corner Store.”

“Urban Renewal’s” first section is certainly not a “night museum” for the residents. Instead, Jackson’s speaker exhibits them  as if the reader is an outsider, or tourist, getting a glimpse of the real city—away from the marble monuments and bronze statues. During his observation, the speaker notices a girl getting her hair done, who cocks her head  “to one side like a Modigliani.”[5]

At that moment, the speaker evokes the famous Italian painter and sculptor. Amadeo Clemente Modigliani, who lived in France, according to various sources, was known for his style of painting and sculpting women with blank expressions and elongated torsos. Like the stoop dwellers in Jackson’s “Night Museum,” Modigliani knew hard times. His poverty, overwork and addictions to both alcohol and narcotics aggravated his tubercular meningitis, according to sources.

By evoking Modigliani’s spirit, I wondered if Jackson’s speaker attempted to be the late-artist, who created works simply as a way of sharing with outsiders the world he saw. The first line of “Night Museum” alludes to this: “By lamplight my steady hand brushes a canvas.” And, like Modigliani’s women, the people who inhabit “Night Museum” are expressionless: “[…] I watched/ a mother straddle a stoop of brushes, combs,/ a jar of royal crown. She was fingering rows/ dark as alleys on a young girl’s head […]”.[6]

(PHOTO: laallen) An alley in Philly.

These psychological details allude to how Modigliani’s purpose for his work (showing what he saw) influences the speaker: “[…] I pledged/ my life right then to braiding her lines to mine,/ to anointing the streets I love with all my mind’s wit.”[7]

If you consider the poem’s title “Urban Renewal,” which refers to land redevelopment in cities, it’s clear that Jackson’s speaker is doing more than “anointing streets […] with all [of his] mind’s wit.”

While urban renewal beautifies the cities’ once neglected areas, it often results in people being displaced. In this case, it’s happening in the speaker’s hometown of Philadelphia. Most of these folks are long-time residents with decades’ worth of institutional memory, the city’s history a tourist won’t read in brochures.

Some of that history explored in “part two of Urban Renewal”. The first lines of that section takes the reader back to the 17th century: “Penn’s Green Countrie Towne uncurled a shadow […]/ that descended over gridiron streets like a black shroud/ and darkened parlors with the predatory fog of prosperity […].”[8]

Inga Saffron’s Essay “Green Country Town” contextualizes the moment captured in Jackson’s poem. William Penn, a real estate developer, Saffron writes, “envisioned Philadelphia as a lush American Eden,” which would later be called green (sometimes “greene”) country town.[9]

However, it turned out to be a disaster. “Having bequeathed those five public squares to the city as part of the plan,” according to the essay:

Penn then established the great Philadelphia tradition of not funding them. Because no money was allotted for turning the wild blocks into landscaped parks […] They became convenient places to hang criminals and bury the poor. It wasn’t until 1820 that the city government agreed to take responsibility for their upkeep.[10]

Perhaps the towne’s “shadow” and “the predatory fog of prosperity” to which Jackson’s speaker refers was how Penn’s vision displaced the  “workers in cotton mills and foundries,” who “shook [their] heads in disbelief.”[11]

(PHOTO: simon_music) The Parthenon in Athenian Acropolis, Greece.

It’s also clear that Jackson’s speaker sees urban renewal as a type of revisionist history.

His speaker in “part two of Urban Renewal” doesn’t hide his anger in these psychological details: “Step on a platform in our time, the city’s a Parthenon,/ a ruin that makes great  literature of ghostly houses/ whose skins is the enduring chill of western wind.”[12]

And Jackson’s speaker isn’t done. Here’s some more venom for William Penn and other revisionists: “Stare back down cobbled alleys that coil with clopping horses,/ wrought-iron railings, the grand boulevards that make a fiction/ of suffering; then stroll these crumbling blocks, housing projects,/ man-high weeds snagging the barren pages of our vacant lots.”[13]

The past and present collide in “part four of Urban Renewal,” where b-boys battle outside the Liberty Bell’s “public gallery of bronze statues/ whose Generals grimace frightened looks at the darkening scenery.”[14]  That the bronze Generals “grimace[d] frightened looks/ at the darken scenery” is Jackson’s speaker alluding to a contradiction in American history: the American Revolution.

While they fought for their freedom from Great Britain, those bronze Generals and other armed Americans weren’t concerned with the freedom of enslaved Black folks. In fact, the idea of abolishing slavery unsettled some of the freedom-loving Americans.

And I don’t think that contradiction was lost on the black youth “break-danc[ing] the bionic two-step” outside the “Liberty Bell’s glass asylum.”[15] That the dancers in “part four of Urban Renewal” treated the public space as anything but a historic landmark is their way of telling the super patriots were they could stick their Independence Day.

(PHOTO: Archives)

In that sense, it echoes the sentiments of the late-abolitionist and civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass, who blasted a crowd of about 600 people in his 1852 Independence Day speech.

Here’s what Douglass told the crowd that day at Rochester, New York:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveal to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery […][16]

And the dancers outside “the Liberty Bell’s glass asylum” return the “hollow mockery” with their “Kangoled head[s] spin[ning]/ on cardboard, […] windmill[s] garnering allegiance/ […] Break beats blasting […] limbs to Market.”[17]

In the context of urban renewal, the young people’s presence on that public space is a political statement affirming their existence despite them being the “ghost bloom in the camera’s flash.”

And the “ghost bloom” of memory is also present in Audre Lorde’s Coal. Like Jackson’s, Lorde’s speaker is also affected by the changing landscape. But Lorde’s speaker personalizes the city structures in a way that Jackson’s speaker doesn’t.

The reader sees this in “Rooming Houses Are Old Women”: “Rooming houses are old women/ rocking dark windows into their whens/ waiting incomplete circles/ rocking/ rent office to stoop to/ community bathrooms to gas rings and/ under-bed boxes of once useful garbage/ city issued with a twice monthly check.”[18]

(PHOTO: Black Enterprise's archive) Audre Lorde

These “rooming houses,” according to various sources, were often family homes that took in lodgers, who rented rooms. The rent sometimes included meals and laundry service that the host/hostess provided.

But, with hotels and apartments now, rooming houses are things of the past. Lorde personifies these structures as though they were elders with a story about everyone in the community. While reading “Rooming Houses,” I wondered what stories they’d tell about their lodgers.

The “old women” metaphor for rooming houses intensifies the feeling of abandonment the elders usually experience when they’re around young people. The sexual energy in “Rooming Houses” also heightens that loneliness:

[…] the young men next door/ with their loud midnight parties/ and fishy rings left in the bathtub/ no longer arouse them/ from midnight to mealtime no stops in between/ light breaking to pass through jumbled windows/ and who was it who married the widow that Buzzie’s son/ messed with?”[19]

Reading those lines, I thought of the rooming houses as past lovers who once opened up themselves to the “young men” passing through. I see them now as old women reminiscing about those days when they were once the hottest things on the block—that is, until something better came along.

Now, all these “old women” have are one another’s company. The stories pass between them as easy as the gossip about “the widow” and “Buzzie’s son”—the whole time these women knowing they’d give anything to be in the widow’s shoes.

(PHOTO: Archives) An old rooming house.

These sensory details also intensify the loneliness: “Rooming houses/ are old women waiting/ searching/ through darkening windows/ the end or beginning of agony/ old women seen through half-ajar doors/ hoping/ they are not waiting/ but being/ the entrance to somewhere/ unknown and desired/ but not new.”[20]

Some positive things about urban renewal are the jobs it brings. Lorde’s speaker in “The Woman Thing” observes the unemployed men (“hunters”) looking for work in construction or the ensuing retail opportunities:

The hunters are back from beating/ the winter’s face/ in search of a challenge or task/ in search of food/ making fresh tracks for their children’s hunger/ […] The hunters are treading heavily homeward/ through snow that is marked with their own bloody footprints/ empty handed, the hunters return/ snow-maddened, sustained by their rages.[21]

The “winter’s face” is the cold, cruel world in which these “hunters” are looking for ways to support their families. This alludes to the patriarchal society’s definition of a man as hunter and gatherer. And, when these men fall short of that ability, they head home defeated, “treading heavily […]/ through snow that is […] marked/ with their own bloody footprints.”

That their rages sustain them only means they’ll take out their frustrations on “the unbaked girls,” according to Lorde’s speaker, “[who] flee from their angers.” She continues: “Empty handed the hunters come shouting/ injustices drip from their mouths/ like stale snow melted in sunlight./ Meanwhile/ the woman thing my mother taught me/ bakes off its covering of snow/ like a rising blackening sun.”[22]

Knowing my mom and how she raised my sister, “the woman thing” is the speaker having sense enough to put some money away for emergencies. It’s because of “the woman thing” that the family won’t starve.

(ARTWORK: Dreams Time)

Lorde’s speaker faces the cold world again in “Generation”: “How the young attempt and are broken/ differs from age to age/ We were brown free girls/ love singing beneath our skin/ sun in our hair in our eyes/ sun our fortune/ and the wind had made us golden/ made us gay.”[23]

The speaker lost that innocence in the “season of limited power,” which could mean the odds stacked against young people. Reading “Generation,” I’m reminded of a boy I interviewed for a story.

He said his older brother’s high school conditions forced him to make a decision: drop out of school or stay in school and join a gang. His brother dropped out because there was no support to help him do the right thing and graduate.

Like Major Jackson’s speaker, Lorde’s speaker in “Generation” is aware of the institutional memory lost as a result of urban renewal.

Without the elders’ stories to guide them, young people are left to learn life-lessons the hard way. Lorde’s speaker says just as much in these psychological details: “But who comes back from our latched cities of falsehood/ to warn them that the road to nowhere/ is slippery with our blood […]”[24] Lorde’s speaker is just as hopeless as Jackson’s own in “part three of Urban Renewal” when he talked about the eyes of the dead floating from murals around a city in transition (“Aching humans. Prosperous gardens”).[25]

That the brick-and-mortar structures get more attention than the suffering residents only shows how cruel and cold it is in the “latched cities of falsehood.” Lorde’s speaker says just as much in the last stanza of “Generation”: “How the young are tempted and betrayed/ into slaughter or conformity/ is a turn of the mirror/ time’s question only.”


[1] part three of Major Jackson’s “Urban Renewal”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Major Jackson, Leaving Saturn (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Inga Saffron, “Green Country Town,” from The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/green-country-town (Dec. 5, 2011)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Op.Cite, 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927.html (Dec. 5, 2011).

[17] Op.cite, 6.

[18] Audre Lorde, Coal (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 7.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 8.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 13.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Major Jackson, “Urban Renewal,” Leaving Saturn (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 5.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Vicky Leyva

The dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses startled the crowd when they dashed down the aisle of chairs on the Sub Level 1 floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Following them, a boy in his aqua-blue top, dark pink waist-tie and black pants shuffle-stepped among the dancers—his arms outstretched as if he were mimicking the movements of a plane.

These dancers were a highlight of an Afro-Peruvian Rhythms and Dance performance the Museum of African Art and Smithsonian Latino Initiative Pool presented Saturday. The headliners were Peruvian singer Vicky Leyva and her five-piece band.

This is the second event this year I’ve seen at the Museum of African Art. Last month, I saw MATCH + WOOD, a performance by poets Ernesto Mercer, Sami Miranda and a 10-piece band that explored the dynamic connections between Latino, African and American cultures.

Saturday’s event was a thread in an ongoing narrative of the Afro-Peruvian experience that started when the first slaves arrived in Peru in the sixteenth century, according to World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Peru: Afro-Peruvians published by the Minority Rights Group International. “By the nineteenth century, slaves formed the heart of Peru’s plantation labour force,” the publication noted.

And though the Peruvian government abolished slavery in 1854, Afro-Peruvians didn’t regain their ethnic identity until the 1950s. That’s when Afro-Peruvians created dance and theater groups to reaffirm their African identity.

(PHOTO: OralHistoryEducation.com) March on Washington, 1963

“Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, social groups formed to trace their African roots,” according to the publication. “Although these groups were short-lived, other groups have taken their place, including the Asociacion Cultural de la Juventud Negra, the Instituto de Investigaciones Afro-Peruano, and the Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo.”

During Saturday’s performance, Vicky Leyva’s Afro-Peruvian pride showed in her brown micro-shoulder-length braids, her wood-beaded cuff and her one-piece cheetah-print jumpsuit.

Even her smart phone exuded an Afro-Latina vibe. When it rang during sound check, the early attendees looked around to see who was blowing a wooden flute and smacking claves.

Leyva kicked off her set with a percussive-heavy number to which she stomped a foot and rolled her hips. The audience nodded and tapped their feet as the rhythm sped up. She jumped into another number that required crowd participation in the form of clapping. Leyva drove the crowd wild when she started winding her hips. She danced to each musician’s solo—even to that of the bass guitarist and electric keyboard.

This style of dance and accompanying music is festejo, according to afropop.org, the companion site for the radio series Afropop Worldwide, which served as a portal for Americans to learn more about Africa and the world for 22 years. The site is a network of researchers, writers, field recorders, photographers, videographers, audio engineers, producers, bloggers and on-air personalities.

According to the site, “The festejo is the most joyous of Afro-Peruvian music styles.” Vocalist Susana Baca, one of the site’s researchers, traced the dance and music to slavery in Peru. “After independence in Peru and the abolition of slavery,” she was quoted as saying, “people who were slaves only wanted to forget that part of their lives, to erase all memory of that stage of history.”

(PHOTO: Que Pasa Magazine)

She continued: “Erasing memory signified erasing melodies, erasing songs, erasing dances, and erasing traditions.

There were times in the early part of the 20th Century when an African descendant would be asked if he or she could remember a slave song. This person would say that they could not remember, but they remembered.”

Over time, the festejo became competitive among men, who gathered in a circle with their cajones (or box drums) and beat out “a series of fighting rhythms,” according to afropop.org. The festejo now incorporates sensual and undulating movements, the body’s way of talking. The percussionists are puppet masters whose rhythms trigger the dancer’s movements.

Vicky Leyva’s body interpreted the sounds and rhythms of cowbells and congas. The crowd jumped up and applauded when her body matched the violent rhythms of a cajone player whose box drum doubled as his stool. During that exchange, Leyva’s movements were as fluid as the underwater light patterns that rippled on a wall behind the performers. “I’m enjoying that,” she said after her dance. “Are you enjoying it?” We all yelled, “Yeah!”

Then Leyva performed a piece by a famous Afro-Peruvian poet to drums and hand claps. The poem, whose name escapes me, is about a little girl in Peru learning to embrace her African heritage. The little girl’s reluctance is the result of the current marginalization of Afro-Peruvians. According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous PeoplesPeru, the Afro-Peruvian movement in Peru was weaker than those in Brazil and Columbia.

The publication also found that the Afro-Peruvians in rural areas live in extreme poverty without basic services or social programs. As a result, “anti-racism working groups have been formed in Lima, and organizations such as the Asociacion Palenque and the Asociacion pro Derechos Humanos del Negro have managed to make their voices heard.” However, the Peruvian press reports show continued discrimination that included a club in Lima barring entrance to people of African descent.

(IMAGE: usslave.blogspot.com)

The little girl in the poem’s reluctance comes from the fact that despite a strong presence of African group identity, black Peruvians have no special collective rights since they’re not officially recognized as a distinct cultural group.

Though Leyva performed the poem in Spanish—a language I learned, but was never close to speaking it fluently—it was clear for me that the back-up singers’ chants of “Negra!” started as a taunt.

But once the girl embraced her African roots, she turned the taunt into her affirming chant: “Negra!”

And Vicky Leyva’s performance was just as affirming, especially when the dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses came out. We clapped for the dancers moving the top layer of their dresses from side to side while they spun to the percussion. We shouted while the boy stepped to the cajone, congas and cowbell.

Leyva smiled while watching all this, and I wondered if she was once that little girl in the poem; if that was why she picked that poem to perform. I didn’t wonder long when Leyva, amid applause for the dancers who dashed back through the aisle, came back to the mic for her last affirmation. “I feel this music,” she said as we cheered. “African roots are in my veins. They’re in the veins of everyone here.”

(PHOTO: Jati Lindsay) Carolyn Malachi's 2008 debut project, 'Revenge of the Smart Chicks,' is a rally call to empower women in the arts.

Five minutes before her set, Carolyn Malachi was at a corner booth near the stage, pulling up poems and song lyrics on her tablet.

Behind her were two open booths. The empty chairs last night outnumbered the audience in the Langston Room at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.

The empty seats were noticeable enough to unsettle Busboys poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.

“This is embarrassing,” he told me. He put the word out through Facebook and his email list. Still the crowd was small. “Is it because of the three-day weekend,” he wondered aloud. To which I said, “It’s possible.”

But the turnout didn’t faze Carolyn. She’d performed for fewer people back in 2005, when she was building her reputation as a singer.  That’s before she made her rounds at various open mics throughout DC and Baltimore, before her songs made it on the radio, before the buzz and Grammy nomination. So no, she wasn’t bothered by the turnout Sunday night, even if the crowd appeared to be there for just dinner and drinks.

Before her performance that Sunday night, I was the only person who signed the open mic list. The low murmurs of conversations continued despite the poet-in-residence kicking off the night with his poem “The Mic Is Now Open,” which has been customary since Derrick started the Nine on the Ninth event six years ago.

“Attention! Attention! The mic is, and ever shall be, open,” he concluded. “Check 1. Check 2. Next up to the mic”—he pointed throughout the audience—“is you, and you, and you, and you.”

(PHOTO: washingtondcjazznetwork.ning.com) Her second album 'Revenge of the Smart Chick II: Ambitious Gods' earned her honors and accolades.

The talking stopped abruptly when Carolyn Malachi took the stage and pulled the red shawl from over her low-cut fade.

Whatever the crowd expected, I’m sure it wasn’t a six-foot woman wearing baggy African-print pants and a dark form-fitting blazer. She also had a feather taped to each side of her face.

Noticing the puzzled looks, Carolyn said, “I wear the feathers because I want everyone to remember vision takes flight.” The crowd nodded “ah-haa.” And in that moment, the 27-year-old songstress, musician, dancer and spoken word artist went—in the audience’s mind—from an oddity to an eclectic entertainer worth listening to.

I’ve seen Carolyn perform before. She’s usually with three or five other musicians bringing the house down. But that Sunday night, she was solo.

Her set last night reminded me a lot of Lauren Hill Unplugged, where the former Fugees artist stripped away the big budget production sounds and, instead, made it about her guitar and raw feelings.

For 20 minutes, Carolyn gave the audience a raw glimpse at some unsettled things in her life. “Is it hard to love?” she asked the crowd. “Shout it out.”

One guy said it wasn’t and quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: 27”: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” A woman countered by saying, “You might not get the love back.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Carolyn Malachi) Malachi founded the Smart Chicks, Inc. organization and its ever-growing, Smart Chicks Network brand, to develop visibility and leadership opportunities for women in the arts.

There was a time I might’ve agreed with that woman, when each relationship at the time was a one-sided scale. In each case, I had more invested than the other person. Those times, it was important for me to surround myself with positive people. I thank Derrick, the poet-in-residence, who I’ve known for a decade, and my boy Fred. Both guys kept me optimistic during those turbulent times.

Going back to what the woman said that Sunday night, I recalled a quote from Sharon Salzberg, a spiritual teacher, author and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

“If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years—we turn on the light and it is illuminated,” Salzberg once put it. “Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on.”

My light has stayed on since I met my fiancée two years ago. Now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I wanted to tell that woman who said it was hard to love to turn on her light.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Carolyn Malachi)

It was obvious Carolyn Malachi kept hers on, even as she reminisced about past loves. Her performance was as much therapeutic for the woman and others in the crowd as it was for Carolyn herself. So much so that we all cracked up when the artist said, “Remember, what’s said here stays here.”

Carolyn’s been compared to avant-garde artists such as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae for the otherworldly vibe of her music. Her Grammy-nominated song “Orion,” off her EP Lions, Fires and Squares, is a love story between an astronaut and mermaid.

She sang it capella:

Hey, Space Cowboy. I want you in my interplanetary good vibe zoneDon’t be coy, Space Cowboy. I’m a dish you’ll enjoy. At least I will be when I get rid of these scales. I’m all fins and tails. You’re all stars and fly and just like you I like to stick to what I know, dear. Lately this water’s been jail. I feel the need to get me some sky and, just like you, I could use some variety.

The highlight of Carolyn’s performance was her “capacity for love and happiness” despite her romantic setbacks. She laughed about past loves, not bitterly but remembering the good times.

She read an epistolary to a lover, a letter she said she sent him and didn’t get a response. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn read, “In the afterglow/ of yes and no, I bask/ beautifully.” The women nodded while they snapped. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn continued, “You are fresher/ than Adam’s first breath.” To which the crowd yelled “What?!” and “Go on, girl!”

Carolyn smiled and cleverly spun her past lover’s rejection. “I know, right?” she said, responding to the outburst. “Fellas, what would you say if a woman came at you like that?” Silence. Then Carolyn, still smiling, said: “That’s what I thought.”

(IMAGE: New Issues)

You’ve seen that movie or read the novel, the one where the ending blindsided you. The hero or heroine, for whom you rooted throughout the drama, was either captured or killed. Or maybe it was another story with an ending that left you hanging.

In either case you left the theater or closed the pages, slightly disappointed. But that didn’t stop you from dreaming up alternate endings for your satisfaction.

That’s what Rachel Eliza Griffiths does with Mule & Pear (New Issues, 2011), her third collection of poetry. “Many of these poems convey the intimacy I’ve developed and sustained through reading,” Rachel writes in a brief introduction. “From this act and all of its powers, my imagination gathered some of my most admired literary characters and their creators in one space, one intricate body…in hopes that each voice would make its way towards other voices.”

Rachel gathered characters from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and a host of other novelists, including DC’s own Edward P. Jones.

Alice walks right off the pages of Jones’s The Known World and into Rachel’s poem “Alice Paints the Moon.” In the novel, Alice is a slave who wanders away from the plantation every night. And each time she’s captured by the patrollers who bring her back to Henry, her Black slave owner.

According to Jones’s novel, Alice’s madness is the result of a mule kick to the head, or as Rachel puts it poetically: “a mule kicked her spirit into the middle/ of some unknown world.” (I dug the play on the novel’s title in those lines).

And while Jones’s back story humanizes Alice, Rachel’s poem goes further in that task. That the “hemorrhaged world” inside this madwoman was more exciting than her reality not only intensifies how severe her mental injury was but also speaks to the pain of slavery.

It also takes the onus of madness off Alice and puts it on the oppressive world around her. Had I been living during Alice’s time, it wouldn’t take a mule kicking my head for me to go mad. A Black man owning me would get the job done.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

The madness takes on a different form in the poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet.” Both characters appear courtesy of Valerie Martin’s novel Property.

The story, told in Gaudet’s voice, takes place on a sugar plantation north of New Orleans. Sarah’s the unwilling mistress of a slave owner, whose wife, Gaudet, is in a bad marriage. Gaudet, unable to have children, despises Sarah, who birthed two kids for her master.

Sarah escapes in a slave revolt that kills Gaudet’s husband and severely injures the woman.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet” flips the point of view from Gaudet to Sarah, who rarely speaks in the novel.

And like Alice, Sarah doesn’t have to own someone else’s perception of her being “crazy”. Instead, through Rachel’s poem, Sarah turns that perception back on the oppressive world of which both women are victims.

Sarah also turns it on the perverse Gaudet, who suckled Sarah’s breasts for milk to further subjugate the slave woman. “Understand this:/ I didn’t offers my breast to her. The night she come/ into my room like a man hunting my nipple,” Sarah says in Rachel’s poem. “Mistress knows nobody going listen/ if I tell it. How can I tell/ what’s crazy or real anymore?”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Self portrait.

What makes these poems great is that there’s music amid the madness. Take the poem “La Tête du Soleil,” where the music is in the recurring “baby”: “Baby, baby in your mama’s calabash/ […] Baby of kola & palm wine, baby/ whose eyes will never close/ […] Baby, baby in your basket of war.”

Another musical moment is in the recurring “basket”: “[…] basket of war/ […] In a basket your laughter/ […] A child’s head rolling inside the gutted basket.”

“La Tête du Soleil” was inspired by events from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which explores the lives of two women during the Nigerians-Biafran War (1967-1970).

The musical moments intensify the speaker’s disgusted tones, which play off the English translation of the poem’s title: “Lord, I beg Your Pardon”: “I beg your pardon. I beg/ your pardon. Lord,/ I beg your pardon.” At that point, the tone goes from disgust to a plea for the war’s end.

A poem just as musical is “Mercy Does Not Mean Thank You”. Reading this poem, it was impossible not to think of a woman’s body nailed to a crucifix: “a body/ with wounds” and “a moan beneath laughter” (they know not what they do).

Mercy, the silent heroine, takes on the sins of the world—“the waterlogged/ song of Emmett Till”, “[…] girls/ buried beneath a bombed-out church”, “a shadow removing/ its eyeless hood”.

(IMAGE: Dane of travelpod)

The musical moments are the recurring “say” and “it is”:

But say it is a body
with wounds

Say it is my father
bursting into tears alone
above his newspaper

Or is it the blood-flecked
underbelly of a rabid dog
named Thank You

Maybe it is the dark cinema
of my camera […]

Say it is four tongues
that puncture
a compass

[…] Say it is new as a haircut
Say it is hard as a strawberry
Say it is useful as ugliness
Say it is necessary as hands

Say it is the vantage
from God’s knees

and so on.

Those recurrences make the poem a chant, which was relaxing. I imagined Mercy chanting along, drawing into herself and that spiritual place to heal.

I enjoyed Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Mule & Pear for the same reasons Carl Phillips did. “Griffiths is a master at capturing persona, and uses that gift, especially, to consider the notion of heritage,” according to his blurb. “The ambition of these poems dazzles, as does indeed their achievement.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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