Follow Harriet on Twitter
“Land is connected intimately to bodies, bones, and ghosts. A place, inhabited in a body and psychology, and in their symbols, waits to hear its own voice and to experience a homecoming.”
Jessica Mason McFadden
On writing narrative:
Years ago someone said “Keep it simple.”
Years later someone said “Make it plain.”
And not too long ago, someone said, “That’s too easy.”
Like wearing a communion dress for graduation. The dress is white. It is formal. Communion dresses happen to be on sale. And it fits. Like a Care Free Curl home kit. You will stretch out that small packet of curl activator for the entire day. What’s complicated is the person taking the picture.
The top of your head has been cut off from the world. We see that you’re smiling. We do not know what you’re thinking…
or what you dream to be when you grow up.
On Dia de los Muertos, you attend a mini altar workshop held at the Julia de Burgos center in El Barrio. There are about a half dozen women sharing glue guns, tiny butterflies, images of Frida, beads, glitters, sheets of reproduced Lotería bingo and plastic flowers to make personal altars. The process at first is not so simple to begin. When you fully realize that your intentions are to make an altar for your mother, you freeze. You pick at random markers, glitter glue and pencils. You grab at ribbon and worry dolls. You have opened up your art supplies box from high school figuratively but you’re without a concept. As if there must be a concept or grant application for every creative thing you begin. You are fumbling with the very first word on a sheet of paper. You don’t know what to do with all this arts and craft stuff.
“But I will stay here, only do not
force me to climb down any deeper.”
Death. It became normal by the time I was 12. The rituals proceeding death are routine. Morgue. Outfitting the dead. Cremation. Embalming. Funeral Home. Casket. Cemetery. Kleenex. Tuna Casserole. And yet when I write about it, I am trapped in the sentiment and stunted when tracing those first encounters.
Like say, in junior high school, my best friend and I would hold our breath on the M4 bus when passing the cemetery in route to Columbia Presbyterian. We were subjects (guinea pigs) in a study to determine if grade school youth could learn college level microbiology quicker. Someone had told us breathing in front of the dead was impolite. It was about two or three months prior when my cousin’s father was shot in the head in the lobby of our building. Mugging. I wondered if he was still in the lobby, if I needed to hold my breath entering and exiting. And where would I begin to breath again? 3rd floor? 4th floor? This is a five-floor walk up.
Ona ni ko to
Tarara ni mo ya
The path is not straight
I branch and follow the path
(Verse from Ifa)
An egungun dancer whirls and whirls like Oya Igbalé. The dancer’s costume is decorated with ribbons, mirrors and metal. The bits of cloth fly through the air. The sequence reflects light onto faces. They talk like flickers off bottle trees but for different reasons. I cannot translate nor do I want to. The little bells chime. The bits of fabric touch the audience like arms. Like tentacles. The arms are spirits that reach out and touch those who need messages; folks of importance. The dancers are men. The priesthood is male. The spirits are ancestors.
You’ve been slowly revisiting the chicken scratch called Letters to the Darkening Land. It is about remembrance and ghosts. Beneath, fears and erasure. Where’s the comedy? You are unwilling to discard this shell. The shell is constructed from a pile of old hats, prosthetic limbs, porcelain ducks, polyester prints and costume jewelry. The dead like something about this shell as they are waiting for you to figure it out. Otherwise they would stop reminding you.
March 2013. I did not come to the Dominican Republic to converse with the dead.
I had taken a 1am Amtrak from DC to New York to prevent traveling with electronic gear. By my guardian angels, Amiri and the Baraka Clan just happen to be at the DC station at that same time. We sit nearby each other. They get off in New Jersey. I return home, drop off gear, hop into a taxi, but then back track, run up uneven steps and slip on my stoop. My knee swells during the flight to DR. Upon landing, our group is taken to ceremony. The house of Ile Abebbe Oshun welcomes us but I am fighting with this distracting pain. I worry about the knee. Later, on the grounds of CONAMUCA (the Confederation of Rural Women), a lotion of camphor and methanol and other magical feelgood stuff is pressed against it. A nun created the lotion to help the poor heal themselves. With this lotion the blood disperses but the struggle to walk comes and goes. Never mind the difficulty with being intellectually present these 7 days. The dead saw it fit to converse with our group of artists and scholars who traveled there. Daily, one of us needed attending to. A number of us are extra sensitive to the presence of spirits. Never a dull moment with hummingbirds.
“…perhaps the dead man is the one who gives, while the dead woman gives less…”
You cannot write about your father because you cannot read your father’s body as dead. In truth, his body is a mystery. His very existence is nonexistent. And thus his body represents most male bodies. Mysterious. Mute. Purposely mute. Undead and un/alive. When you hear of their final travels, you are unable to react creatively. You disagree with Cixous. The female body is more alive even when it has no direct history with your own. She is your birthplace and loss of it. She is the one still in search for the right words to place on your divided tongue. Little by little, she gets you closer when it is asked of you to write another version.
Iya ni wura
Baba ni dingi
Mother is gold
Father is a mirror
What is the “scene’s cruelty” I sometimes witness when revising the letters over and over again? If I make it plain, is there something of a risk I’m taking? What about now? Keeping it simple. Will you still love me? There’s an “inevitable failure” I awake to some mornings. The reminder that during one divination (spiritual reading), three wishes were to be discarded. Divination can be quite cryptic. And each year, I go over my Top 20 wishes and horde them away. I’m simply not ready to be just a writer.
The picture is fading. You are rocking a reversed mushroom. The heat of summer is sweating out all that hot comb and kitchen time. What ever you dreamt of becoming then is turning sepia, gradually being absorbed by the parked car. We can see your eyes now but we are uncertain if you’re happy.
“The egg is one of the most effective agents for absorbing psychic or spiritual negativity.”
Lillian-Yvonne said “hold/whole/hole of the ship.”
These bodies have tongues. I do not know how to translate them. It is difficult to trace their origins, as it is to trace the body of my dead sister, my dead mother, my dead grand mother, my dead great grand mother, my dead great aunt. The hold of the ship is a complicated matter. Missing birth certificates. Missing death certificates. Passing for white in the Metropolitan Opera House. Letters begging old friends to come save them. The further I go into the question of transcribing the dead, shit gets complicated. How can I not complicate this body or this scene? But to complicate the dead body with how I like to complicate things with languages does not fit into the “hold/whole/hole of the ship” for now.
Dead bodies beside living ones. Orphaned bodies. Abused bodies. Bodies that were happy once.
And now the more recent ones encountered at the 16 Century plantation, Ingenio Boca de Nigua in San Cristobal, DR or respectively, Quisqueya.
These bodies were female. These bodies were Taino and African. They are in the water, the dirt, cemented to this relic historians and engineers consider the first sugar plantation. The first in the Western Hemisphere, is where their bones were crushed, they were malnourished, lost limbs…
and when they fought back, they were beheaded.
You are told their bodies were thrown into the ocean, that there are no graves. But a problem arises here as this plantation was first stocked with male bodies. Why do you only sense those that were women? Were they buried chained beside their priestly masters? Are their bodies lost in the cement? Why is it that you can only write of their bodies when they were initially fewer in number? Some days later, you will go to Centro Para la Paz y Desarollo (CEDOPAZ) in the mountain town of El Ramon, San Cristobal. There, you will attend a “toque de palos.” The Palo drums are played for you and the group. You are suppose to be reflecting. You do enjoy the celebration but you’re fatigued. Your body is turning pale and cold. You shiver throughout the night. You are not physically ill. When you are tended to in the morning, your clothes are removed and an egg is passed over your head, your arms, and your feet. Your color comes back.
But are these bodies negative? I wonder as I begin to sketch out a map of stories and emotions. Are they just angry or demanding attention? I am asked to write but I am unable to. What comes naturally is to draw. Writing will come later. I haven’t practiced sketching the human body in quite some time. Proportion is comical. The hand rather struggle with the shape of eyes and lips and skulls.
Ana Maria. Shot and killed.
Mamá Tingo. Killed.
Margie Diggs. Shot and killed by husband.
Mary Lightfoot Diggs. Opera Singer (?). Unknown.
Olivia Diggs-Shiggs. Bone cancer.
Beasley. Brain tumor.
Albert Goldstein. Cirrhosis of the liver.
Daphne. Car crash in grade school. Brain dead.
T-Dog. Local drug dealer. Killed in front of his mother’s window.
Eric. Shot and killed defending his brother outside Apollo Theatre.
Shawn. Eric’s brother. Killed in a motorcycle crash a week later.
Edward Nicholas Sr. Killed during a robbery.
Ruben Sandwich. Rumor: diagnosed with AIDS. Suicide.
Michelle Call. Died of AIDS. Family denied her illness.
Matt Doo. Suicide.
Phebus. Heart failure.
Margaret Diggs. Heart failure. “Natural causes.”
Akilah. Heart failure.
Ana Rodriguez. Pulmonary embolism
Jayne. Heart failure.
The chicken scratch is shells, beads and stone. The chicken scratch is wire, leather, and magic markers. The chicken scratch is a column. A column below the ship. A column of Taino words. Colibri. Karaya. Aconabo. Atabey. Anigua. Ata. Yocahú. Heketi. Amayauna. Tanama. Jicotea. Aiba. Bibi. Nanichi. Ita’. Columns of letters. Rows of bodies trailing for weeks. Diagrams on heavy-duty fabric stabilizer. Sketches of a bottle of prescription medication for a bad heart or gout and a bottle of Night Train. The operi’to want to be tangible.
“It is indeed necessary to have been wounded to tolerate seeing death ineluctably inscribed in the scene.” Hélène Cixous
Much of this chicken scratch lives on 111th. The chicken scratch here is loud and tireless. You archive the dead but remain unable to produce a body of work about them. They resist your field recorder and video camera. You are left to paper and what you can transcribe from memory. These bodies don’t want to be seen as much as they want to be “seen.” They once hid—or were imprisoned—in the abandoned buildings that are now condos. You’ll remember the time your mother overlooking workers gutting out a row of buildings tell you “They’re gonna find some bones in there.” These bodies are male and female. Bodies of drug dealers. Addicts with no names. Bodies of elderly folk who fell asleep with lit Newport’s. Bodies of slain Domino players. Arson. Angel Dust. Mafia shit. They do not show themselves completely. They are at times just names. They don’t sit on the edge of your bed.
The Hudson River is pretty fierce.
Footprints. Scribbles. The living body sketches and paints. The dead body throws shade.
Back in DR, CONAMUCA wanted a mural. Our group’s leaders agree to make one but it is the end of our stay and there is only one day left. Much talk about writing today. Much about processing our experience here in writing. I do not personally feel like writing a poem and volunteer to facilitate the mural. The supplies are not ideal but one can manage. High lead and high fumes. Paint thinner. Not the ideal ventilation for privacy as this room was made to be an open space. Things become foggy. Two young girls want to join me. We make up songs but this task is between the dead and me. They cannot suffer from these chemicals like I must for my last hours here.
Upstate NY. And either the beads will run out first or the vision will decides it best to stop as it is evening and the lighting is miserable. Seed beads were meant for younger eyes. It is 1am now and the fingers are still threading, reaching for silver bells and turquoise stone. You make these dentalium earrings long and extravagant. Like arms. Like tentacles.
Tarot for the Day: Justice (reversed), The World, The Fool
Song for the Day: Massive Attack “Unfinished Symphony”