Oh, Kwame Dawes, I was Just Thinking About You
One of my students talked about you in class on Wednesday. A white girl at a fancy university claimed you as a poetic ancestor. Spoke eloquently of her affection for your poems and your energy and your work. She wants to be like you. I think she will be. Her energy and drive and love are irrepressible.
And yet, despite the ray of light that is Ms. Montana Ray, it all seems bleak to me tonight. I’m thinking of you in Haiti and of Haiti.
I was born, a little Jew girl in Greenwich Village but was raised on Haitian folktales. Stories from all over the world and especially, for years and years, from Haiti. Stepmothers chopping stepsons into pieces, the dismembered body singing out the truth of what happened. Papa God and General Death fighting over which of them was more favored or more feared. (In the end, the people prefer General Death because he treats everyone equally whereas Papa God gives to some and not to others.) Donkeys turning into people to escape the dry season and then turning back into donkeys again. Or that mother with four daughters who loved them all except Philamandré whom she did not love.
I traveled to Haiti several times as a child with my mother, Diane Wolkstein, who traveled around the country, learning and translating Haitian stories she later collected into The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. Do poets change the world? Do storytellers? I keep saying I want poems to do something, how about change the world? I don’t know. I do know I can remember what Haiti smelled like. What the air felt like—a particular smell and feeling I’ve not felt anywhere else.
Here, close to my home, St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village has just closed down in large part because they actually fulfilled their Catholic mission of caring for the poor. And now, among all the other serious problems this will cause for the people of New York, the hospital’s closing has endangered the legal status of New York City’s homebirth midwives. As of midnight on april 30th the midwives will lose their legal status. There are fewer and fewer options for women who want to birth normally, without unnecessary interventions. We’re so rich and lucky here and look what we’ve done to ourselves. Taken away what should be a woman’s basic right—to birth a baby supported by skilled and loving helpers in a safe and calm environment. We gave that away with our fear and our ignorance and our wrong-headed belief that money and modern medicine would make white women immune to childbearing losses and all we’ve done is lose our power, our agency, our belief in our own bodies, our faith in other women, in ourselves.
My son weaned right around the time of the earthquake in Haiti. The weaning set off a severe (but luckily not lasting) depression. My grief over this loss seemed appallingly spoiled as I watched footage of women, babes on hips or strapped to backs, in long lines, waiting for water. Not to mention the mothers and fathers whose babies were killed or babies who lost parents. But there was my grief—raging and dragging up all the other grief I’ve know, blotting out all it could—and it would not disappear even when I saw how outrageously lucky I was with my healthy sons and my easy life and felt ashamed. Shame does not erase grief. And grief does not erase shame.
Invited by Jeffrey McDaniel, I gave a reading Tuesday night at Sarah Lawrence. The students asked questions and I got the question I most often get (this one is always, always asked by a women and never by a man): “are you worried about what your children or family will think about your poems?” Often, in response to this question I talk about being Jewish. About how different it is to come out of a culture in which thoughts and deeds are not equivalent, in which over-talking and arguing (and complaining) are commonplace, in which sex is not a sin, in which my artistic ancestors are Lenny Bruce and Philip Roth as much as Sharon Olds and Alice Notley (although they gave me all the permission I need).
But it’s not just a Jewish thing, is it? We write about what we know. I write about being a woman, a mother, a lover, a New Yorker, a Jew. I claim these. Am these. But, somewhere inside me is the story of “One my Darling come to Mama”—the horrible, beautiful tale of the mother who prefers her oldest three, how the oldest three are taken away by the devil, the mother goes mad and is one day cared for by the once-scorned child, Philamandré.
A white girl—only child—in a middle class family, what did I understand of Philamandré or her mother? What did I understand of Papa God and General Death? What do I understand now?
Do you think I’m mixing too many things together? Yes. And not just in this post. I think that’s what my poetry is most often about. In prose there is almost always too much shame for me to talk about these things—race, class, love, religion—but in poetry they are always there piled on top of each other ineluctably mixed up. The pressure of the internal against the outside world. The grief of weaning my last child and the grief of the suffering of Haiti. The mother love and mother anger of all the fairytales, of Olds and Notley and Rich and all these women. The smells of New York and of the Haitian countryside of my childhood memories. Greenwich Village of the 1970s and Greenwich Village of today. My body—emptied of the four pregnancies I carried, the three sons I birthed, the milk I made to sustain them—and the memory of giving birth almost bursting in my bedroom surrounded by love. How I feel about home birth and how I feel about the wars all over the planet. The small and large injustices. It’s all in me. In the poems. Do I worry about how my family will feel when they read my poems? No. Because it is only in overcoming the shame of being human and wanting to speak one’s private griefs and joys in the midst of overwhelming louder and bigger and more important griefs and joys that one can survive.
What does any of it have to do with poetry? I don’t know you Kwame Dawes. But I do. You don’t know me. But you might. Does that change the world? I don’t know. But writing poems brings me closer to knowing you and to knowing myself.
Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...