UPDATE: Reading Podcast now available from the Pratt Library Website
A great weekend of readings and panels here in Baltimore surrounding the 30th Anniversary Celebration for the African-American literary journal Callaloo. It was a wonderful Old Home weekend of reunions with folks, some of whom I haven't seen in years and years (Big UP! Christian!) for me as well.
The Pratt was fortunate enough to play host to a reading by three powerhouse poets, Carl Phillips, Natasha Trethewey, and Yusef Komunyakaa Friday night. The rain was heavy, and downtown traffic next to impossible, so we got off to a late start, but otherwise it was an amazing night. Carl read some of my own favorites of his work from his Quiver of Arrows collection (Thanks!), Natasha read from the Pulitzer Prize Winning Native Guard, and Yusef mainly read new work, including an amazing "Requiem" for New Orleans. Some of the finest and most highly respected living poets (and please note: not 'black poets' not even 'American poets,' but finest poets on the planet/global/"universal" ), it was an extraordinary thing to hear them reading together from the same stage.
(Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths)
Here are three poems read by the readers on October 19th, to give you a little flavor of the program. (Podcast of the program pending)
As from a Quiver of Arrows
What do we do with the body, do we
burn it, do we set it in dirt or in
stone, do we wrap it in balm, honey,
oil, and the gauze and tip it onto
and trust it to a raft and to water?
What will happen to the memory of his
body, if one of us doesn't hurry now
and write it down fast? Will it be
salt or late light that it melts like?
Floss, rubber gloves, a chewed cap
to a pen elsewhere - how are we to
regard his effects, do we throw them
or use them away, do we say they are
relics and so treat them like relics?
Does his soiled linen count? If so,
would we be wrong then, to wash it?
There are no instructions whether it
should go to where are those with no
linen, or whether by night we should
memorially wear it ourselves, by day
reflect upon it folded, shelved, empty.
Here, on the floor behind his bed is
a bent photo - why? Were the two of
them lovers? Does it mean, where we
found it, that he forgot it or lost it
or intended it for safekeeping? Should we
attempt to make contact? What if this
other man too is dead? Or alive, but
doesn't want to remember, is human?
Is it okay to be human, and fall away
from obliation and memory, if we forget,
and can't sometimes help it and sometimes
it is all that we want? How long, in
dawns or new cocks, does that take?
What if it is rest and nothing else that
we want? Is it a findable thing, small?
In what hole is it hidden? Is it, maybe,
a country? Will a guide be required who
will say to us how? Doe we fly? Do we
swim? What will I do now, with my hands?
-- Carl Phillips
We tell the story every year—
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.
We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.
At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.
It seemed the angels had gathered,
white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly.
No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.
When they were done, the men left quietly.
No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.
-- Natasha Trethewey
from Autobiography of My Alter Ego
I did what I did. To see
friends turn into ghosts
among the reeds, to do
deeds that packed the heart
with brine and saltpeter
was to sing like a bone
for dust. All the questions
were backed up
inside my brain. Questions
I didn’t know I had -
as if I had stopped
at the bloody breach -
the stopgap between
animal and human being.
I did what I did.
I called the Vietnamese
gooks and dinks
so I could kill them. But one night
I had to bash in the skull
of a dying GI.
I was the squad leader,
but I didn’t order
PFC MacHenry to do
what I couldn’t do.
Or Private Ortega.
I used the butt
of my MI6
& stars bled on the grass.
Was the soldier black?
Was he white?
I can only say
I did what I did
because he sounded like a pigeon
tied to a hunter’s stool,
cooing with eyes sewn shut.
-- Yusef Komunyakaa