The Martyr Poets
My second book, Wite Out: Love and Work (250 pages), which will be out next month, includes a long memoir drawn from almost twenty years of notebooks. Like my first book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, it’s a hybrid work and includes poems and lyric essays. Here is a small (and time-lapsed) selection from the early years covered in the new book, with some emphasis on Mná na hÉireann for this month of March.
That was my job, being catholic. Filling my poems with a secret so thick you could bounce on it.
When we first moved to Berkeley from New York two years ago, I was in heaven — all the pretty gardens and farmers’ markets, and my new job.
But then I noticed the smug liberalism and the whiteness. “Where are all the people?” I asked Andrew. Someone told us we should go to Oakland.
Except for working as a waitress at Lois the Pie Queen in 1986, I’d hardly ever been to Oakland.
One Friday we drove to a Vietnamese place called Le Cheval. The huge dining room was filled with all kinds of people. Everyone smiled at Isabel as I carried her to our table near the bar. “Beautiful baby,” said a man in a Raiders cap. “Pretty girl,” said a middle-aged woman in a Tupac t-shirt.
“Oh!” I said to Andrew. “Here’s where the people are.”
And now, because we’ve separated, and because I was evicted and had no place else to go, I live here with the people.
To New York for work. First time I’ve ever been away from Isabel for so long. I’m still nursing her, and I didn’t know if my milk would dry up on the trip. But I have plenty of it, and I squeeze it out of my breasts when I shower here.
Tonight Leah and Young had their weekly dinner party. Leah looked at my chest and said, “Your boobs must be ready to burst.” She suggested I nurse her newest baby, Eva (after years of anorexia, Leah suddenly can’t seem to stop getting pregnant, and somehow she’s thinner than ever). She handed Eva to me. Would this baby take to me? Eva began to suckle so furiously that we laughed. She nursed for a long time while gripping her mother’s hair. The babies, the milk, us — Leah’s hair — it was like a dream. The guys kept passing plates down the long wooden table in our direction, trying not to stare.
Visited Knopf to negotiate paperback reprint rights for the letters of Wallace Stevens. The next day I came up to Boston on the train. Bob told me to try to meet Jorie in Cambridge but I couldn’t schedule it. We talked on the phone, though, and I swear I heard her famous hair brushing the receiver.
Saturn, Jorie said, is now finishing its dark transit.
“Are you a Taurus like me?”
“Yes,” I said. “How did you guess?”
“Have the last few years been hard for you?”
“Incredible,” I said, too ashamed to say more than that. I’d have to talk about Icarus to make my situation understood in Harvard Square, and that would be inaccurate and bathetic; Icarus was a classical boy, not a girl from Dorchester.
“Me too,” she said. “This has been such a hard time.”
She has a student who’s the daughter of the Queen’s astrologer, so she gets top-quality transatlantic advice about the zodiac.
“Dame So-and-So” [I didn’t catch the name] “says things will get better for us soon.”
Us? Us? Who is this “us”?
I checked out of the Charles and went down the South Shore to see my parents and go through boxes we left in their cellar. I found the clock Andrew’s rich grandparents gave us for our wedding. It was broken when we got it. I traced my fingertips over my brother Joey’s old books. It was getting dark and cold. I climbed the rickety stairs, past my parents’ separate stashes of spices, powdered milk, cans of soup, his and hers; hers with notes taped to the lids: “Dick, DON’T touch this!” — “DON’T” underlined five times.
I never dreamed of having of a coveted job like the one I have now, but how can I manage without a wife to do chores or a husband to pay the rent or parents to help with babysitting and logistics? There are no other single mothers, no broke people, doing acquisitions at any of the university presses.
But this was an amazing day. I met Judy Butler, presented two Knopf reprints at the editorial meeting, and offered a contract for the collected Lorine Niedecker. I’d first read Niedecker when I moved down to New Haven to live with Andrew. The only job I could get was at a book warehouse in East Haven — sad sycamores with the tops cut off lining the bus route. After work, I’d get on the bus and sit with the workers from the cheese factory and the mattress factory. Some of them were developmentally disabled. They called out to each other from the front of the bus to the back while I paged through old issues of Origin.
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else.
By the time we got to the New Haven green, a world away, I smelled of cheese, too.
Oakland, and the Great Migration, and the Black Panthers, and the blues, and my stack of library books — “Eddie is white, and we know he is because nobody says so,” writes Toni Morrison, re: Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
And Flannery O’Connor, from Everything That Rises:
“The ones I feel sorry for,” [the mother] said, “are the ones that are half white. They’re tragic.”
“Will you skip it?” [replies the son]
“Suppose we were half white. We would certainly have mixed feelings.”
“I have mixed feelings now,” he groaned.
He knows better than she does, but he’s still a fool in his self-righteousness. What, I wonder, is the right way to be white?
Down on Lakeshore Avenue on Saturday in bright sunshine. African guys in robes and turbans hang out at Peet’s every morning. They’re very dark and look like royalty in those clothes. Like the three kings visiting the infant Jesus. On Saturday, they sit in the pocket park next to the drugstore and play chess. A light-skinned African-American man walked past and peeked in at their dark faces. “Hey, need a little light in there?” They all laughed. Deep, booming laughter.
The life in the street here — the daily daily — “Her whole body panging and pinging,” writes Zora Neale Hurston. “A hippy undulation below the waist that is a sheaf of promises tied with unconscious power. She is acting out ‘I’m a darned sweet woman and you know it.’”
Reading while drinking, writing in the margins —
“These little plays by strolling players are acted out daily in a dozen streets in a thousand cities, and no one ever mistakes the meaning.”
Notch, notch, notch
Waiting in the lobby for the parent-teacher conference with Kadijah the kindergarten teacher. Cold gray day after cold dark night.
Mary Ann and Rod come downstairs from the classroom. They are beaming.
“Oh, isn’t Kadijah wonderful!”
“She’s great, yes.”
Kadijah and I went out for drinks last week when our girls were with their fathers. In a school where all the teachers wear sensible shoes, Kadijah wears boots with spiked heels and gets down on the floor with the kids. We all love Kadijah.
“But this epidemic of lice!” Mary Ann says.
“Oh, it’s terrible,” I say, scratching my head.
Big-boned Mary Ann clutches Rod’s arm. He’s a grinning patriot who loves George Bush and looks just like Al Gore.
Mary Ann purrs, “Rod and I check each other’s hair for lice every night. I just don’t know how you single mothers handle this alone.”
“Yeah,” I say, “it’s tough.”
She talks about their kitchen renovation and their upcoming vacation at a Mexican resort.
“Rod found a school near the resort where he volunteers as an inspirational speaker when we visit.”
She wears matching outfits and smells like air freshener. Imagine her pitying me for having no Rod of my own!
I smiled and nodded and went up to see Khadijah.
And all day long I nursed a grudge. I should have said, “Oh, it’s okay, Mary Ann. These days, when Isabel’s at her father’s house for the night, I go down to Kingman’s, I pick up some guy, and I tell him, ‘Take me from behind and check me for lice.'”
On the phone my brother Richard says he’s waiting for all his plans “to come to fruitition.” Like our mother, he is inventive with the language.
Neither of them has had the kind of formal education that cramps your style. Years ago, she got a restraining order against him, but now that he’s medicated he’s allowed in her kitchen once in a while. He can do his laundry there, but he has to pay them. It never ends well. He tries to explain to our mother that parents are supposed to love their children unconditionally. He saw it on Oprah. “Hey, Ma,” he says. “You watch Oprah, don’t you? How about a little unconditional love, Ma?” She laughs in his face.
Andrew brought Isabel to me at the usual time, 5:30 on a Saturday night, and she sat at the other end of the couch and read her book while I read Eros the Bittersweet. I trembled slightly in the silence, aware that this was the first time we had ever read silently together and apart. Arrowed out in different directions, intimate but separate.
My brother Richard is on the phone in his cab in Boston, answering my call and telling the guy in the backseat: “It’s my sister from California.”
“Cali-phony-a.” Said with relish and a kind of amazement.
“How’s the weather there?” he shouts.
“Oh, beautiful. The usual.”
Oh, how I wish that it would rain.
“What’s it doing there?” I ask.
“It’s bitter, Linda. It’s wicked bitter.”
At my desk yesterday I squeezed my breasts to see if I had anything left. Almost seven years after giving birth, I still get a drop from the left one. It tastes like goat milk.
New job. Lonely editorial work. But now I don’t have to travel and I work in a research library. Databases galore, online censuses, maps, newspapers.
I search the ruins of maiden names, and the stigma of my father’s illegitimacy looms again. Is it pathetic to try to make meaning of all this chaos and shame? I feel like I’m a dog pawing at a grave. But I have this document — the social worker’s report about my grandmother’s case — when she was indigent, unmarried, with child — my father — in 1932 and ’33. I pore over it, I search for birth and death certificates and graves. Lost women and children. Ghosts beckon in the ether. Googling, I learn that the Black Valley, where my father’s mother grew up, was the last place in Ireland to get electricity — in 1978! And that a company called Kalem made silent films there from 1910–1915, when my grandmother and her sisters were little girls. And I learn about St. Finian’s Asylum for the Lunatic Poor in Killarney where their mother, my great-grandmother, died at age thirty-two, after the death of her infant, leaving four little children, including my grandmother.
I go down to the stacks and borrow every book I can find about County Kerry in the early twentieth century, and the Civil War there, and madness and women and illegitimacy in Ireland.
What would be the point in seeing [a girl] nude and nailed up? Where’s the contradiction? Could that drive a culture for over 2000 years? No way. Female suffering must be hidden or nothing can work. It’s a man’s world and a girl on a cross would be like seeing an animal in a trap. — Eileen Myles
Listening to sean-nós — a kind of rough music — and re-reading Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The bitterness starts on page forty-two, with Mary, of course. “Bitterly resentful” — “Bitterly” — “Bitterly” — “Her bitterness receding.” Tyrone: “A tired, bitterly sad old man.” Jamie: “Bitterly.” I count thirty-three instances of bitterness in the stage directions in this play about an Irish American family. The characters also do things angrily, violently, pleadingly, hopelessly, pitifully, philosophically, stupidly, pathetically, resentfully, tenderly, miserably, contemptuously, provocatively, and, of course, sentimentally.
Don’t be bitter, Linda.
Adam notices that Eve is holding something close as they leave the garden. He asks her what she carries so carefully. She replies that it is a little of the apple core that she’s keeping for their children. — From the autobiography of William Butler Yeats
Dinner with Steve and Tina. Steve gets a call and I hear him talking about an alcoholic relation who is being released from the hospital because he’s better. “But how much better can he be,” asks Steve, “if gangrene has set in?”
Isabel wrote some poems after Lyn’s reading last night:
In a hope that
the relatively easy
It’s the daily buzz
sacrifice the things
Richard calls, tells me he pulled his own tooth yesterday. He took nothing to numb it. He doesn’t drink any more.
I feel bad for him. He got it worst.
I tell him I’ll send some coconut cake. It’s moist so it will keep in the mail, and he can eat it while he heals. I make it with stout but the alcohol burns off so it’s harmless.
I sniffle and he says, “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” I say.
Is he worried about me? I’ve never known him to worry about me. I hesitate. I tell him I miss Isabel when she’s with Andrew. I feel like a failure. I get no respect at work. Lonely. Broke. No family. My car is a shit heap. My apartment’s tiny. Isabel should have her own room with a door, but I can’t afford another place.
He says, “You got a daughter, a job, a place to live, and a car. You’re not a failure.”
“And once again the fields of gloom are adroitly plowed under…”: WOR radio announcer at the Savoy introducing Billie Holiday and Count Basie, circa 1935.
Before Poppy Fabric opens in the morning there are seamstresses waiting at the door. At the hardware store men wait in the parking lot. People line up in front of the methadone clinic at 8:50 a.m. There’s a crowd on the library steps before it opens at noon.
At Julie’s and Tim’s for Mother’s Day. We told the kids what we’d realized recently — the same New York midwife had delivered my Isabel and Julie’s son Benjamin. We talked about Brooklyn. Then we read Benjamin’s poems. There was one line that seemed like an answer to one of my brother Joey’s lines, the second half of a couplet separated by almost twenty years.
Joey: “What is the answer to this ragged eating?’
Benjamin: “There is a loving situation in the kitchen.”
Julie said that would make a good broadside.
Dreamed I had a broken typewriter and called someone to fix it. The repairman reached into the well of keys and pulled out something that was stuck, and the keys all jumped up to strike the paper. “Here’s your problem,” he said, holding up a small diamond ring.
Spring’s son is on the other side of my back door again having sex with his girlfriend while I re-read My Emily Dickinson. It’s not the first time I’ve heard them on the landing. Tomorrow I’ll find another opaque black condom thrown from the back porch into the driveway.
Tonight he’s there again, but he’s alone. I sit on the couch reading about Dickinson while he writes rhymes. I can hear him chanting softly, counting beats.
The Martyr Poets — did not tell —
But wrought their Pang in syllable —
That when their mortal name be numb —
Their mortal fate — encourage Some —
A report from a British traveler to Ireland in the 1860s, where so many Irish were homeless, mad, still starving, because there were lesser famines before and after the Great Famine: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along the hundreds of miles of horrible country […] to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were Black one would not feel it so much.”
Virginia Woolf wrote home from Ireland: “It is a lovely country, but very melancholy, except that the people never stop talking.”
At home I open my book about the holy wells of Ireland and find that Isabel has written her name in it and drawn smiling porpoises on the map.
Dinner with Ann the other night. We talked about Beckett and our Catholicism. She remembers her mother having a miscarriage and begging little Ann to baptize the bloody mess in the toilet. We shake our heads, we cross ourselves. We are Catholics, we are Irish, we are feminists. We know what we mean.
I’ve been doing volunteer work for years at Isabel’s school because it’s part of the contract we signed when we accepted financial aid, and I feel I should be grateful. I like working with the kids but I don’t fit in with most of the parents. Not everyone is rich, not by a long shot, but I do stand out when I drop Isabel off in my ancient Volvo with the missing grille. I’m like a toothless woman at a fancy party of BMWs and SUVs.
At the last parent party, where I sat listening, once again, to the small talk about kitchen renovations and second homes, I almost blurted out that my mother used to work as a deodorant tester to pick up a little extra money. That would have been a conversation stopper.
Now, inspired (or provoked) by my friend Johnnie, I’ve volunteered to be an advocate for youth in the foster care system. My paying job is lonely and I spend most of my time editing the life histories of elite white men. I can’t get my boss to give me full-time work, and maybe that’s for the best. I can dedicate my Fridays to this other work. And meet some people like me.
At the beginning, all the volunteers wanted to work with cute little kids, but it was made clear that it’s teenagers who need advocates. Ideally, they told us, boys in the system would have “strong male role models” as court advocates. They told us that advocates often show up once or twice, then disappear when they realize they can’t be saviors like in the movies. I looked around the room, counting the other white women, thinking about all the ways that do-gooders do bad.
I was sworn in last week as an officer of the court. They assigned me a case, a seventeen-year-old boy named Marcus, and I met with his attorney.
The next week we went out to East Oakland to meet him and his grandmother, who is his legal guardian.
I went home and re-read the social worker’s reports. I have in my files the same type of report about my father and his mother, who was an unmarried immigrant suspected of being a fallen woman. Those reports, from 1932, are filled with judgments (and misogyny). In the reports about Marcus’s family, the language is more opaque.
On Friday I met Marcus at Lanesplitter Pizza on Telegraph. He towered over me in the doorway but looked scared. His eyes were bloodshot from stress. He was in a shelter until they found his grandmother and she took him in. We sat in the corner and talked a little about his tiny, ferocious attorney and his upcoming court dates.
“Look,” I said, “they know they’re supposed to send you a strong Black male role model, but I was the closest thing to it this week.”
What a stupid thing to say.
He laughed. “I don’t mind.”
He is a writer, tagging all around Oakland with the name JOOS. I told him I would look for his work.
Dinner on Friday at Rudy’s with Marcus. We parked near Pixar. Everyone had gone home for the weekend. The fence surrounding the office buildings was covered with a thousand big pink roses, so perfect and uniform that they looked like something out of a Disney movie. I reached up to pick a rose and Marcus deftly took my hand before I had a chance to pluck anything. He stepped up his pace, pulling me along toward the restaurant.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “There are so many of them.”
“I’m on probation,” he said. “You pick that and I’m the one they’ll arrest.”
He pointed to the police car at the corner. I hadn’t noticed it.
Inauguration night. Isabel and I go to Jack London Square for a block party near Everett and Jones. We’re the only white people there. We stand on the curb at the back of the crowd while people dance in the street. On a huge outdoor movie screen, they’re repeating a holy trinity of images: a lynching in the Jim Crow South; the face of the first Black president; and a picture of Oscar Grant. I explain to Isabel, as succinctly as possible, why these things go together.
I grew up kneeling beneath Jesus on the cross. It doesn’t seem strange to me that suffering and crucifixion and resurrection are part of the same story.
Bells in the campanile played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” tonight as I was leaving work.
In the locker room the tune comes into my head and I start to hum as I put my clothes on. In the other rows, a few women start to hum along. Then we sing the words softly.
As I leave, I look down the aisles and note that each of the singers is white. Someone apparently taught us something.
If the fool would persist in [her] folly, [she] would become wise. — William Blake
I certainly have persisted.
Looking through thirty years of notebooks — stitching, remembering, juxtaposing. Imposing order that isn’t there while you’re living it.
Publishing a book —The Public Gardens — half poetry, half prose —
What if no one reads it?
What if someone reads it?
What will I right next?
I mean, what will I write next?
Marcus asked, “Am I in your book?”
“No,” I said. “It’s about a time before I knew you. But you can be on my book.”
And so he is, in a way. I pulled out that old black-and-white photo of a stranger and made a collage for the cover, and that young man stands in for Marcus. And for Johnnie and Billy Strayhorn and James Baldwin and my brother, and others. And their mothers.