Because you are to me a song
I must not sing you over-long.
Because you are to me a prayer
I cannot say you everywhere.
Because you are to me a rose —
You will not stay when summer goes.
I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background
After Glenn Ligon after Zora Neale Hurston
Or, I feel sharp white.
Or, colored against.
Or, I am thrown. I am against. Or, when white I sharp. I color.
Quiet. Forget. My country is a boat.
I feel most colored when I swear to god.
I feel most colored when it is too late.
When I am captive
The last thing on my mind is death.
I tongue elegy.
I color green because green is the color of power.
I am growing two fruits.
I feel most colored when I am thrown against the sidewalk.
It is the last time I feel colored.
Stone is the name of the fruit.
I am a man I am a man I am a woman I am a man I am a woman I am protected and served.
I background my country.
My country sharp in my throat.
I pay taxes and I am a child and I grow into a bright fleshy fruit.
White bites: I stain the uniform.
I am thrown black typeface in a headline with no name.
Or, no one hears me.
I am thrown bone, “Unarmed.”
I feel most colored when my weapon is I.
When I get what I deserve.
When I can’t breathe.
When on television I shuffle and widen my eyes.
I feel most colored when I am thrown against a mattress, my tits my waist my ankles buried in.
White ash. Everyone claps.
I feel most colored when I am the punchline. When I am the trigger.
In the dawn, putrid yellow, I know what I am being told.
My country pisses on my grave.
My country bigger than god.
Elegy my country.
I feel most colored when I am collecting dust.
When I am impatient and sick. They use us to distract us.
My ears leak violet petals.
I sharpen them. I sharpen them again.
Oughta Be a Woman
Washing the floors to send you to college
Staying at home so you can feel safe
What do you think is the soul of her knowledge
What do you think that makes her feel safe
Biting her lips and lowering her eyes
To make sure there’s food on the table
What do you think would be her surprise
If the world was as willing as she’s able
Hugging herself in an old kitchen chair
She listens to your hurt and your rage
What do you think she knows of despair
What is the aching of age
The fathers, the children, the brothers
Turn to her and everybody white turns to her
What about her turning around
Alone in the everyday light
There oughta be a woman can break
Down, sit down, break down, sit down
Like everybody else call it quits on Mondays
Blues on Tuesdays, sleep until Sunday
Down, sit down, break down, sit down
A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh
Courage that cries out at night
A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh
Bravery kept outa sight
A way outa no way is too much to ask
Too much of a task for any one woman
A man trades his son for horses.
That’s the version I prefer. I like
The safety of it, no one at fault,
Everyone rewarded. God gets
The boy. The boy becomes
Immortal. His father rides until
Grief sounds as good as the gallop
Of an animal born to carry those
Who patrol and protect our inherited
Kingdom. When we look at myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don’t you want God
To want you? Don’t you dream
Of someone with wings taking you
Up? And when the master comes
For our children, he smells
Like the men who own stables
In Heaven, that far terrain
Between Promise and Apology.
No one has to convince us.
The people of my country believe
We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.
“It isn’t the risk of death and fear of danger that prevent people from rising up,” Leonel once said, “it is numbness, acquiescence, and the defeat of the mind. Resistance to oppression begins when people realize deeply within themselves that something better is possible.” He also said that what destroys a society, a state, a government, is corruption—that, and the use of force, which is always applied against those who have not been convinced or included. He was always talking about corruption: trying to prevent it, expose it, eradicate it. He was dedicated to the task of bringing the sin to the eye.” –What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance – Caroline Forché
As a new year is well underway, I can’t count the things that have changed. I can’t explain how trying to care for someone ends up driving them away. How the silence that is normally a welcome comfort feels isolating as it never has before. How people can surprise you with both extremes of pettiness and kindness. How different perceptions can be – what seems insignificant to me is serious to someone else. And most of all how there are so many people in the world lacking in self-awareness, who exist as sexist, passive-aggressive bullies, and as men, plow blindly and blithely through the world despite the wreckage they leave in their wake. How is this knowledge newly and repeatedly a fresh surprise to me at my age?
Something else that surprises me is the search terms that lead people to this blog. Sometimes they are astounding. Today: “Is Phoebe Cates HIV positive?” I have no idea how they’d end up here based on that search, but that’s the fun of the internet, is it not?
I’ve gone a bit crazy on reading in January (cracking through 61 books during the month). I don’t know how to explain how I managed this either except that I felt myself crumbling underneath extraordinary stress — and just needed some outlet to forget it.
Here’s what you missed in the last nearly two years: 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for January:
“But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.” ––Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
It’s poetry, and it’s powerful.
“On this question of fear. When I began writing these pages I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them. The ways in which for example we write novels “just to show” each other. The ways in which our investments in each other remain too freighted ever to see the other clear.”
Good – or better than expected
A slight but naggingly thought-provoking wee book. Written in a distant, impersonal tone that nevertheless draws you in and makes you feel all the “fog” of never questioning until suddenly you find yourself questioning – speculating about – everything. Open your eyes. Suddenly everything seems different.
“The wife reads about something called “the wayward fog” on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream. All of this has to do with chemicals in the brain, allegedly. An amphetamine-like mix, far more compelling than the soothing attachment one. Or so the evolutionary biologists say. It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. “What are you reading about?” the husband asks her from across the room. “Weather,” she tells him.”
“I would try to learn from Leonel how to listen to what was said but also to what was not said, and I would also try to learn how to detect deception in others, which, he assured me, is a skill that can be acquired. I would learn to review my experiences for the missed details, and to keep in mind that while I was observing others, they were also observing me, and I would become less (how did he put it?) readable, and when necessary, I would attempt, in his words, to “manage the perceptions of others” so that, of the “five versions of the truth,” in any given situation, mine might prevail. “This place is a symphony of illusion,” Leonel often said, “and an orchestra needs a conductor.””
Poet Caroline Forché recounts her experiences in 1970s pre-civil war El Salvador in a stark memoir. As a young, and arguably naive, American woman, Leonel Gómez Vides, an activist and organizer, turned up on Forché’s doorstep demanding that she come to El Salvador to truly see what was going on there in a way that he believed only a poet could see or explain.
“So you can’t say it. You can’t write it. Even in a poem. If you had a photograph of the goddamn thing no one would believe you. As for your man in the basilica, your observations are imprecise. Next time pay closer attention. Someday you will be talking to your own people. Writing for your own people. I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.””
What is one’s personal experience of war, and is it ‘war’ when it’s an indirect and mostly symbolic thing? Nović’s book begins to draw out these kinds of questions by contrasting the breakup of Yugoslavia and horrors that accompanied it with the post-9/11 war on terror (“more an idea than an experience”).
“It was now six months since the attacks, and the everyday things were returning to normal, first through an attitude of compulsory courage—fear means letting them win—then in a slow reinstating of routines, until we were again wrapped up in the mundane inconveniences of city life: knocking radiator pipes, subway construction reroutes, and the usual array of vermin. The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans—that I—could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me; it did not cut my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks or foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here. What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia—what must have been happening in Afghanistan—that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.”
How does one go on after war of the Yugoslav or Afghan type, how to reclaim some of the everyday that permeated life almost unnoticed before everything fell apart?
““What about a portable air conditioner?” I said. “In New York people get little window units.” But the suggestion was met unanimously with looks of horror. “Air-conditioning will give you kidney stones,” Luka said. I was gradually recalling those mundane moments—the ones that had until now given way to more traumatic memories—of a childhood governed by collective superstition: Never open two windows across from each other—the propuh draft will give you pneumonia. Don’t sit at the corner of the table; you’ll never get married. Lighting a cigarette straight off a candle kills a sailor. Don’t cut your nails on a Sunday. If it hurts, put some rakija on it. I tried to think of a singularly American superstition. I’d learned a few from the Uncles—something about not letting one’s shoes touch the kitchen table—but those were all imported from the Old World. Perhaps a country of immigrants had never gotten around to commingling the less desirable pieces of their cultures. Either that, or life there wasn’t difficult enough to warrant an adult’s belief in magic.”
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
““In the early twentieth century, employees who left their job on an assembly line didn’t take the company’s resources along with them. Their vacancy was filled with another warm body to perform the same mechanical tasks. When knowledge is the currency, however, employees who leave their job take a precious piece of supply along with them and often leave their teams scrambling to fill the gap.”
Much of Marissa Orr’s book, Lean Out, struck a nerve. The whole Lean In ‘revolution’ is predicated on the idea that all women – and all people – want to be climbing the same corporate ladder. I don’t care to climb; I don’t care to take on the responsibility and the politics that come with executive-level positions. The idea that we lack ambition, drive, passion, interest in our jobs or companies, if we are not building our lives around making this climb, is pervasive.
“I often wondered what would happen if, instead of the parade of powerful women, a lower-level manager juggling a household, kids, a husband, and a personal life took the mic and said, “Raise your hand if you’re apathetic about your job because it’s all politics and bullshit anyway.” Would the majority of us once again have our hands in the air? Perhaps. We can’t know for sure because nobody ordinary appears onstage, and it’s a question no one ever asks. The lack of authenticity wasn’t isolated to public conversations on female empowerment. It also governed the politics of our individual careers. As I discovered right away, the first rule of being a woman at work is to never tell the truth about all the reasonable feelings and concerns you have about being a woman at work. I’ve always been bad at knowing what I can and can’t say in certain situations, so I learned this painful lesson early and often. “
“Indifference toward climbing the corporate ladder is treated universally as a negative. The entire goal of women’s leadership seminars and training programs is to help you advance along with your male peers. Voicing reluctance is tantamount to exposing some secret failing and is a betrayal to our identities as modern, empowered women. As a result, there’s a distinct lack of honesty in the public conversation about women at work. Dominated by a singular chorus of voices, we focus on tangential things…”
Orr has done a fine job in telling this story, and what it means for the many who do not conform to the expected desire to climb.
“Part of the reason we’ve failed to solve the gender gap is because the spotlight is on the trunk of the elephant, which we’ve mistaken for the whole animal. Do women who were born to be the boss suffer penalties for acting out of type? Absolutely. But would the majority of women say that being punished for their bossiness is the biggest obstacle to their career success? I doubt it. We’ve over-indexed our time and attention on problems that plague a smaller subset of women, while ignoring the ones that are more common and perhaps more troublesome. You can see them only if you zoom out to see the whole elephant. And that’s why it’s so important to hear various perspectives from women on all rungs of the corporate ladder.”
“Imagine that we asked women, “Do you aspire to be a corporate executive or CEO?” If the majority of women answered yes, then helping them climb the corporate ladder would make sense and be a worthy endeavor. However, as previously stated, the majority of women have said no, they don’t want to be corporate executives. The leadership ambition gap works by disregarding the answers as irrelevant, suggesting that the only reason women say no is because they’re culturally conditioned to say that. Taking our thoughts, feelings, and desires into consideration is pointless, I suppose.”
She also touches on the other side of the coin: what it means for employees and companies when the wrong kinds of people are eager to – and do – ascend.
“Perhaps the biggest threat to trust and profit are bad managers. According to a Forbes article, “Regardless of one’s level in an organization, your day-to-day relationship with your direct manager is invariably crucial to your well-being.”16 If employees feel, among other things, that their supervisor takes a real interest in their development, or offers frequent praise and recognition, they’re likely to be engaged. No matter how many perks or how fancy one’s office space, they hardly compensate for a tyrannical micromanager lording over you and your work every day. It’s impossible to improve organizational trust without rethinking the scope of a manager’s authority and how companies deal with bad bosses. Management is a universal prize given without consideration to whether a person is capable of the task. Given the steep price a company pays for a bad boss, it’s astounding how little attention is paid to the matter. Being a great manager, or even just a moderately good one, requires a specific skill set.”
So, I liked this a lot because I hate the lean-in idea that we should all want the same things – that we are not valid or successful if we are not climbing the same ladder. That we should strive to do what men stereotypically do. There is a lot of good stuff here, marred only occasionally by a few too many name-dropping moments that seem almost bitter. And maybe Orr was bitter. It appears that by unshackling herself from expectation, she landed on her feet doing something that suits her better.
It’s impossible when reading as much as I have been not to have all kinds of crossover and coincidence appear. No sooner had I read a Robert Coles book, Doing Documentary Work, on how the observer’s influence and perspective cannot help but drive the work, and in which he discussed Dust Bowl era photography, e.g. Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, than I was digging into something related to help a friend do research on something entirely different but which was heavily influenced by Lange and Walker.
In the case of Bethany McLean’s gripping (as all of McLean’s well-researched backstory/exposé works are) account of the chain of events that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, I ended up with a strange crossover with Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. In Mbue’s book, things fall apart for two immigrants to the US, in part, because of the unraveling of the entire financial system’s deceptions and fraudulence. I happened to read this the day after reading McLean’s opus on the crisis. Incidentally, Behold the Dreamers was a good book, too.
I’d recommend just reading the book for yourself, but one thing I took away was actually McLean’s citation of Robert Rubin‘s memoir (italics mine):
“His fear stemmed from something almost no one else in government could claim: actual experience with a derivatives meltdown. It happened in the late 1980s when a sudden, unexpected shift in interest rates – unforeseen by Goldman’s risk models, needless to say – wrecked havoc on the bond and derivatives markets. ‘Bonds are derivatives products began to move in unexpected ways relative to each other because traders hadn’t focused on how these securities might behave under the extremely unlikely market conditions that were now occurring,’ Rubin writes in his memoir. ‘’”Neither Steve nor I was an expert in this area, so our confusion was not surprising. But the people who traded these instruments did not fully understand these developments, either, and that was unsettling. You’d come to work thinking, We’ve lost a lot of money but the worst is finally behind us. Now what do we do? And then a new problem would develop. We didn’t know how to stop the process.’ He concludes: ‘What happened to us represents a seeming tendency in human nature not to give appropriate weight to what might occur under remote, but potentially very damaging, circumstances’.”
Biggest disappointment (or disliked)
I didn’t hate anything I read in January although I read a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t bother mentioning, as it had no influence one way or the other.
Those Winter Sundays
–Robert HaydenSundays too my father got up earlyand put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,then with cracked hands that achedfrom labor in the weekday weather madebanked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.When the rooms were warm, he’d call,and slowly I would rise and dress,fearing the chronic angers of that house,Speaking indifferently to him,who had driven out the coldand polished my good shoes as well.What did I know, what did I knowof love’s austere and lonely offices?
Full moon rising on the waters of my heart,
Lakes and moon and fires,
Holding her lips apart.
Promises of slumber leaving shore to charm the moon,
Miracle made vesper-keeps,
And I’ll be sleeping soon.
Cloine, curled like the sleepy waters where the
Radiant, resplendently she gleams,
Lips pressed against my heart.
I Take Master Card(Charge Your Love to Me)I’ve heard the stories
’bout how you don’t deserve me
’cause I’m so strong and beautiful and wonderful and you could
never live up to what you know I should have but I just want to let you know:I take Master CardYou can love me as much as your heart can stand
then put the rest on
account and pay the interest
each month until we get this thing settled You see we modern women do comprehend
that we deserve a whole lot more
than what is normally being offered but we are trying
to get aligned with the modern world
So baby you can love me all
you like ’cause you’re pre-approved
and you don’t have to sign on
the bottom line
Charge it up
’til we just can’t take no more
it’s the modern way
I take Master Card
to see your Visa
and I deal with a Discover but I don’t want any American
Express ’cause like the Pointer Sisters say: I need a slow hand.
The valentine of desire is pasted over my heart
and still we are not touching, like things
in a poorly done still life
where the knife appears to be floating over the plate
which is itself hovering above the table somehow,
the entire arrangement of apple, pear, and wineglass
having forgotten the law of gravity,
refusing to be still,
as if the painter had caught them all
in a rare moment of slow flight
just before they drifted out of the room
through a window of perfectly realistic sunlight.