“No Island Is an Island, & So Forth” by American Poet John Sibley Williams

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American Poet John Sibley Williams
Photo Credit: Poet’s Website

My Poetry Corner January 2021 features the poem “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth” from the poetry collection As One Fire Consumes Another (2019) by John Sibley Williams, an award-winning poet, educator, and literary agent. Born in 1978 in Massachusetts, Williams earned his bachelor’s degree at the University at Albany in New York in 2003. Then in 2005, he received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rivier University in New Hampshire. He moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2009 where he earned a Master of Arts in Book Publishing from Portland State University. He lives in Portland with his partner and twin toddlers.

Williams’ poetry collection As One Fire Consumes Another comes at a critical time in American history with the empowerment of white supremacist and white nationalist groups. Framing his poems in column-like boxes, resembling coffins, the poet confronts the violent side of American history and bears witness as one fire consumes an unending series of fires in our homeland, on our southern border, and in distant lands. In an interview with Jeanne Huff of Idaho Press, Williams confessed that he struggled in exploring the extent of his “personal privilege as a white, CIS, able-bodied male whose labors and strains are so trifling compared to others.”

In the poem, “Everything Must Go,” a house is portrayed with ghost-white covering sheets and that new coffin smell. Its mossed gables are weighed down by a full century. Out-of-synch always with the dark drift of history, and hopeful that these are not self-repeating tragedies, the poet proposes that we must sell off what we fear owning. To remain silent is not atonement for our dark history.

We have become so numb to the cruelty we inflict on others with our unending wars that nothing stirs the / birds from our oak when we learn that six children were killed in Kabul, the poet observes in “When instinct matures into will.” The horizon sits / precisely where we left it. Fat with / faith. Fat, faithful, choosing what to / feel, feeling nothing.

Fire also rages in the homeland. The poem “A Gift of Violence,” in memory of the Charlottesville riots in August 2017, speaks of the racist hatred still alive across generations.

 Memories of burning buildings raw
 & righteous. A grandfather’s flames
 passed down, undimmed. A full set
 of knives in the drawer without time
 to blunt from underuse. A city never
 quite white enough. A city furiously
 lit by misremembered histories… 

Even Noah’s ark would not be big enough to un- / ruin, no flood more violent than our / own, the poet laments in “Dear Noah.” Like a ghost haunted by itself, / we move along old scars terrified of / what would happen if left to heal.

As a nation, we remain disunited and self-destructive. Call it by its true name: schism, the poet declares in “The Bones of Us.” Before we were a country of / burning buildings & protest & want, / we were the same. A shining city on / a shining hill raised on the silenced / bones of others.

In the featured poem, “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth,” the poet calls on white Americans to consider the role they all play in the hate and violence permeating our society. Holding on to illusions of bygone glories serve only to sever our body politic.

 Sign your name to ruined Civil War
 forts. Next time, use a Sharpie when
 listing your demands to god. Instead
 of touching forehead to ground as if
 in supplication/ecstasy/grief, set fire
 to the old battlefield & let the winds
 unsever your strings to the past. In
 dust & degrees, redraw boundaries.
 This is what happened & this might
 be what we let happen again… 

When Williams penned these words, did he envisage white insurrectionists carrying the Confederate Flag while they stormed Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021? They fashioned their strings to the past into a Jim Crow-styled noose to hang our Vice President who, they believed, had sold out their cause to hold onto political power.

 
 No island is an island; no body just a
 body, & so forth. When the South
 rises again, carry your father with the
 rebel flag tattoo to the window to
 watch the burning. Let the world
 laugh at itself. Break from tradition.
 To men who want & want & want,
 admit you’ve tried so hard not to be
 one of them.

Emboldened and incited by their leader in the White House, white supremacists and white nationalists among us have risen to prominence. To men who want & want & want there is no end to the burning. Fire consumes lives and livelihoods—black, brown, and white alike. No island is an island; no body just a / body, & so forth.

Only we can set ourselves free from the coffins, filled with hate and fear, that imprison our bodies and souls. Are we up to the task?

To read the complete featured poem, “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth,” and learn more about the work of the poet John Sibley Williams, go to my Poetry Corner January 2021.

Thought for Today: A call to heed our own history

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America will not survive the big lie [that Trump had won the election] just because a liar is separated from power. It will need a thoughtful repluralization of media and a commitment to facts as a public good. The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history. Serious attention to the past helps us to see risks but also suggests future possibility. We cannot be a democratic republic if we tell lies about race, big or small. Democracy is not about minimizing the vote nor ignoring it, neither a matter of gaming nor of breaking a system, but of accepting the equality of others, heeding their voices and counting their votes.

~ Excerpt from the Essay, “The American Abyss,” by Timothy Snyder, The New York Times, January 9, 2021.


Timothy Snyder is the Levin professor of history at Yale University and the author of Our Malady, On Tyranny, The Road to Unfreedom, Black Earth, and Bloodlands. He has received the literature award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hannah Arendt Prize, and the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding.

“Christmas Poem” by Brazilian Poet Vinicius de Moraes

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Brazilian Poet and Lyricist Vinicius de Moraes (1979-1980)
Photo Credit: Vinicius de Moraes Official Website

My Poetry Corner December 2020, featuring the poem “Poema de Natal” (Christmas Poem) by Brazilian poet and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980), is dedicated to those among us who have lost a loved one this year to COVID-19.

Born in the city of Rio de Janeiro, in Southeast Brazil, Vinicius de Moraes is the poet of love and passion. At twenty years old, he published his first book of poetry. Two years later, his second collection won Brazil’s National Poetry Award. He served as a diplomat during the period 1946 to 1969. His first diplomatic post was as Vice-Consul in Los Angeles (1946-1950) where he immersed himself in North American cinema and jazz.

His featured poem, “Christmas Poem,” written in 1946, appears unconnected with the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in Judea. Instead, as the title suggests, the poem is more like reflections on the passing year. The poet ponders over death and what is truly essential to our lives. Why such somber thoughts during the Christmas festivities? Had the sudden death of a great friend, the year before, unsettled his life? The loss of a loved one has a way of giving us a new perspective of human existence.

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Thought for Today: On Giving

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You give but little when you give of your possessions. / It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. // There are those who give little of the much which they have—and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome. / And there are those who have little and give it all. / These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty. // All you have shall some day be given; / Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.  

Excerpt from “On Giving” from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, first published 1923, reprinted edition by Alfred A Knopf, New York, USA, 2005.

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), a poet, philosopher, and artist, was born in Lebanon. At twelve years old, he migrated to the United States with his mother and siblings. The Prophet, written in English, is Gibran’s masterpiece and has become one of the beloved classics of our time. It is considered an expression of the deepest impulses of the human heart and mind.

Update: The Writer’s Life Under the COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown

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Seven months have now passed since I first posted about life during the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time in May, more than 67,000 of our loved ones were taken from us. With our collaboration, this formidable foe continues to contaminate, maim, and kill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as at December 5, 2020, a total of 277,825 Americans have lost their lives. Their grieving families are devastated.

Here in California, America’s most populous state, we now rank in top place with more than 1.2 million infected individuals. Over 19,400 people have died. A recent surge in new infections have heightened the threat. In just 24 hours last week, 18,591 people were infected. COVID-19 does not suffer from battle fatigue. Our weapon to counter this coronavirus will soon be deployed. Relief is on the horizon, but, until then, we must counter its rapid spread.

Concerned that our hospitals would be overwhelmed, putting more lives at risk, Governor Gavin Newsom announced on December 3rd a Regional Stay at Home Order, to take effect on December 5th. Another three weeks! Severity of the lock-down will depend about the capacity of Intensive Care Units (ICU) in each region. On Friday, ICU capacity in Southern California dropped to 13.1 percent.

“By invoking a Stay at Home Order for regions where ICU capacity falls below 15 percent,” said Governor Newsom, “we can flatten the curve as we’ve done before and reduce stress on our health care system…. If we stay home as much as possible, and wear masks when we have to go to the doctor, shop for groceries or go for a hike, California can come out of this in a way that saves lives and puts us on a path toward economic recovery.”

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Reflections: America Divided against Itself

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I am no stranger to divisive racist politics. My lived experience as a former British subject in what was then British Guiana provides the setting for my debut novel, Under the Tamarind Tree. I witnessed the effectiveness of divisiveness as a weapon for maintaining minority control of a population. When deployed across a nation, it threatens and destroys our relationships with co-workers, neighbors, friends, and even family members. It is now happening within my own nuclear family.

We the people are led—perhaps, brainwashed would be a better word—to believe that our differences as individuals are liabilities for the well-being of our nation. A homogeneous population—in our case, preferably white—would make America great again. What we are never told is that our capitalist economic system thrives on the subjugation of black bodies and those of women, of all colors, making the black woman doubly oppressed.

Of greater import is capital’s subjugation of non-human life—caught and sold, cut and re-shaped and sold, habitats burned for expansion, killed to extinction. Mother Nature is now under great stress; breakdown across numerous ecosystems is underway. Even the overheated heavens lash out with fire and fury.

Bloated from insatiable greed with the spoils of nations worldwide, now depleted, and struggling to breathe, capital returns home for its last stand. Those standing in the way of its recovery must be silenced or crushed. Divisiveness works well as a vaccine to subdue growing opposition to capital’s lethal venom and demands for equality and justice for all.

Capital does not care about our financial distress, pain, and losses. Capital does not care that we are losing our loved ones in the battle against the coronavirus. Capital only cares about its own survival. Capital never concedes. “Liberate the economy!” is its call to arms.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks to my American brothers and sisters who risk their lives on the frontlines to care for our loved ones infected with Covid-19. While we the people are divided about the sacrifices essential to combat this invisible enemy, those on the frontlines are battered and exhausted, physically and emotionally. Many have lost their lives.

May your Thanksgiving Day be the best it can be during a pandemic.

“Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” – Poem by Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison

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Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison (2017-2020)
Photo Credit: Pan American World Magazine (Photo by Hugh Wright)

My Poetry Corner November 2020 features the poem “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” from the 1995 poetry collection, To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, by Jamaica’s second Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison (2017-2020) and the first female to receive this honor. The eight of nine children, six boys and three girls, she was born in 1947 in Kingston, capital of the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica. She grew up in a lower-middle-class family on a noisy street with concrete yards. No roses grew in the neighborhood gardens of potted plants, so the people gave the name roses to all their flowers.

The hymns the young Lorna sang during Sunday Mass at the Anglican Church laid the foundation for her poetry. In her interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama for the Image Journal, Goodison recalled that her mother sung hymns as she did her household chores. “In the Jamaica I grew up in,” she told him, “it seemed to me that women sang hymns all the time—washing, doing chores, working—so it was all around me, that language.”

That language of the great composers of Anglican hymns shines through in the opening poem of her third book of poetry, Heartease (1988), in which the persona declares:

 I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart
 which shall not be put out.
 […]
 By the illumination of that candle
 exit death and fear and doubt
 here love and possibility
 within a lit heart, shining out. 

Goodison’s trips in her youth to the lush rural landscapes, to visit her extended family, shaped her imagination for the rest of her life. Though she began writing poems from seven or eight years old, she kept them a secret. Growing up in the shadow of her oldest sister who excelled in writing, she questioned her poetic gift and opted instead to focus on painting, her other passion. Then, at fifteen years old, tragedy struck. Her father, who had brought humor and laughter into their lives, passed away.

“It was terrible watching him die of stomach cancer, and maybe brought on a loss of faith, but that was when I really turned to painting and reading and writing poetry,” Goodison told Tuama. “So I guess the arts became my religion, and I’d consider that good religion because I felt connected, I felt cleansed and healed by poetry and painting and music.”

On completing high school, she worked for a year as a bookmobile trainee librarian with the Jamaica Library Service. She traveled deep into rural areas, where small humble places like Heartease, became mythic and real, strengthening her connection with place that runs through her poetry. Deciding to pursue a career in art, she studied painting at the Jamaica School of Art (1967-1968), and then moved to New York City to attend the Art Students’ League (1968-1969).

Her poem “Who Was the Mother of Jamaican Art?” from her 2005 poetry collection, Controlling the Silver, was inspired by an article about enslaved women making carvings of human figures representing their children sold to other plantation slave owners.

 She was the first nameless woman who created
 images of her children sold away from her.
 She suspended those wood babies from a rope
 round her neck, before she ate she fed them,
 touched bits of pounded yam and plantains
 to sealed lips; always urged them to sip water.
 She carved them of heartwood, teeth and nails
 were her first tools, later she wielded a blunt blade.
 Her spit cleaned face and limbs, the pitch oil
 of her skin burnished. When the woodworms
 bored into their bellies, she warmed castor oil;
 they purged. She learned her art by breaking
 hard rockstones. She did not sign her work. 

While Goodison considered herself as an artist, she never stopped writing poetry. But poetry chose her. “It’s a dominating, intrusive tyrant,” she said in an interview for the Guardian newspaper, as quoted in The Walrus Magazine. “It’s something I have to do—a wicked force.”

Many of Goodison’s poems speak of ordinary women, their struggles and the many roles they play. Her country’s traumatic past of colonialism and slavery permeates the people and the landscape. The featured poem “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” addresses Jamaica’s violence and poverty, legacy of empire. In the first of her six-stanza poem, the poet invokes the untold stories of slavery, kept hidden by empire, that need to be told.

 Mother, one stone is wedged across the hole in our history
 and sealed with blood wax.
 In this hole is our side of the story, exact figures,
 headcounts, burial artifacts, documents, lists, maps
 showing our way up through the stars; lockets of brass
 containing all textures of hair clippings.
 It is the half that has never been told,
 and some of us must tell it. 

These untold stories, she writes in the second stanza, live on through generations, like the stone on the hearts of some women and men, preventing the small / dreamers of this earth from healing. But there is yet another obstacle destroying their future, raised in the third stanza, that mothers want removed as we think of our children and the stones upon their future. In the following fourth stanza, the poet describes the poisonous stone, born of hunger, that drives the violence in their communities and kill their children.

 
 For the year going out came in fat at first
 but toward the harvest it grew lean,
 and many mouth corners gathered white
 and another kind of poison, powdered white
 was brought in to replace what was green,
 And death sells it with one hand
 and with the other death palms a gun
 then death gets death’s picture
 in the paper’s asking
 “where does all this death come from?” 

Driven by the drug trade, death comes to a people already broken by the legacy of slavery and colonialism. As the poet notes in the fifth stanza, narcotics become the soup and meat for its users, leaving the homeless to sleep on concrete sheets. In her call to action in the final stanza, the poet links the great stones of the past with the present and the future.

 
 Mother, the great stones over mankind got to move,
 It’s been ten thousand years we’ve been watching them now
 from various points in the universe.
 From the time of our birth as points of light
 in the eternal coiled workings of the cosmos.
 Roll away stone of poisoned powders come
 to blot out the hope of our young.
 Move stones of the sacrificial lives we breed
 to feed to suicide god of tribalism.
 From across the pathway to mount morning
 site of the rose quartz fountain
 brimming anise and star water
 bright fragrant for our children’s future
 Mother these great stones got to move. 

Poverty, drug addiction, gang violence, and homelessness are not just the scourges of the Jamaican people. They afflict all humans worldwide. For the sake of our children’s future, mothers must remain vigilant and work tirelessly to remove these scourges from our communities.  

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Lorna Goodison, go to my Poetry Corner November 2020.

Time to Heal

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Our differences
magnified & distorted
warped realities.

Fear hate & despair
weaken the foundations of
our democracy.

Let’s cooperate
together we can achieve
a great life for all.

Let’s take down the walls
separating you and me
now it’s time to heal.

A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair

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If you have ever achieved a goal or a dream, you know that the first step to success was in visualizing or verbalizing what you had hoped to achieve. To imagine a desirable future outcome is key to its realization. The animated short film A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair dares to imagine a better world in which no one is sacrificed; a world in which everyone is essential.

About a month into the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, Naomi Klein and her husband Avi Lewis, co-founders of The Leap, together with award-winning artist Molly Crabapple and Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, started a conversation about the role of futurism when so much is at stake. They concurred that to defeat Trump was not enough to fend off naked authoritarianism in the White House. Many other intersecting crises, they noted, are bearing down on America and the world: climate collapse, surging white supremacy, or widespread famine.

In shaping their “Message from the Future,” they could not ignore our burning cities and forests, as well as the global pandemic. Moreover, they could not imagine achieving a safe and humane future without escalating and winning street battles and general strikes. Their call to repair a deep brokenness provided a framework for encompassing the interlocking crises in our social, economic, political, informational, and ecological spheres.

The protagonists of their futuristic animated film are rank-and-file organizers and activists. Disparate movements get on board: organized labor, Black liberation, climate, disabled, feminist, Indigenous, migrant, worker cooperatives, and more. Covid-19 acts as a catalyst for moving humanity forward. As Naomi Klein notes in her article of October 1, 2020, on the premier of the film: “In forcing all of us to confront the porousness of our own bodies in relationship to the vast web of other bodies that sustain us and the people we love—caregivers, farmers, supermarket clerks, street cleaners, and more—the coronavirus instantly exploded the cherished, market-manufactured myth of the individual as self-made island.”

I invite you to watch the animated short film (duration 8:57 minutes) A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair produced by The Intercept in partnership with The Leap.

“Going Out of Business” by American Poet Minnie Bruce Pratt

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Lesbian-feminist American Poet Minnie Bruce Pratt with Family Photos
Photo Credit: Official Website (Photo by Ellen M Blalock)

My Poetry Corner October 2020 features the poem “Going Out of Business” from the poetry collection Inside the Money Machine (2011) by Minnie Bruce Pratt, a lesbian-feminist award-winning poet, educator, and activist. The following excerpts of poems are all sourced from this collection. Born in 1946 in Selma, Alabama, Pratt grew up in Centreville. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Alabama in 1968, where she met her ex-husband. In 1979, she took her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of North Carolina.

After her ten-year-old marriage, Pratt divorced her husband in 1975 to live as a lesbian, upending her life as a privileged white heterosexual woman. Living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at the time, she lost custody of her two sons under the state’s “Crime Against Nature” law. Her loss and grief shaped her morality and led her to a life of activism for women’s rights and specifically lesbian rights. When she shared her emotional journey through shame and anger in her poetry collection, Crime Against Nature, published in 1990, her sons were too old for their father or the law to prevent them from being a part of her life.

After thirty years of adjunct teaching, punctuated by several stints of standing in unemployment lines, Pratt joined the faculty of New York’s Syracuse University in 2005 where she played a key role in launching their LGBT Studies Program. She retired in February 2015.

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