The Air Above Our Tongues
We do not speak, afraid
of what might happen to us
the air above our tongues
prays for us to speak, afraid
of what might happen
if we don’t
— Ruth Forman
The air above my tongue has been frustrated for a long time now. I’ve had a lot to say, but my computer has held me back. But this time I mean it: my computer is fixed. It’s been a long several weeks, but I think we’re finally back on track. Or something. I’m certainly not on track as far as my whole poem-a-day plan. I’ve written a bunch, but not one every day. And I’m not going to torture you by posting all of the ones I’ve written. I’m only sad that I haven’t been able to give you a Ruth Forman poem every day. You most definitely deserve that loveliness. In lieu of being able to post here, I’ve been reading Ruth’s poems to people. Seriously. In the last few days, I’ve read poems to about half a dozen people. Just because. It’s been really nice to share poetry in that way. I might just have to keep it up!
Today’s “lost SOL” is from last week. I may still get around to the ones I couldn’t post in March. Part of me wants to put up everything I’ve written since my computer went down, part of me wants to just let it go. We’ll see what happens.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War (those first shots at Fort Sumter were fired on this day in 1861). No, this isn’t going to be some patriotic or oh-so-grateful-to-be-free love letter. Just some thinking.
The more I learn about all of the events that brought this country to war, all of the varied plans that eventually ended in emancipation, the more I find it miraculous that the country managed to survive that war in some salvageable form, that emancipation managed to happen when it did.
The storyline I keep coming back to is one of Lincoln’s plans for solving the slave problem. Of the many possible ideas — freedom not among them — he favored gathering up all the black people and shipping them out of the country to … you know, anywhere. He tried hard to find another government willing to take us on. That must have been an interesting sales pitch: “Hey, we have this enormous population that we’ve raped and beaten and kept uneducated. Whatcha say we send them to you?” Yeah.
One of the countries he talked to? Costa Rica. Imagine it: the entire African population of the United States dumped on a country the size of West Virginia. Because that would have made sense. And how would the shipping orders have been decided? Any black blood and you were out? All the pretty octoroon girls the fancy gentlemen sought out for pleasure? All the folks who were close to passing? Everyone whose just-a-little-too-kinky hair spoke too loudly about their family history? And what about free blacks? Would they have to leave their homes, their jobs, their lives and head south o’ the border?
For such a famously smart man, you really have to wonder just how thoroughly Abe thought that one through.
I’ve written before about how the one clear upside to Lincoln’s otherwise ridiculous Costa Rica plan would be my fluent Spanish today, but that’s not really true. Once Honest Abe had so totally thrown the world off course, all the little things that would have had to happen in order for me to happen would have been thrown off, too. No slave owner to rape my great great grandmother and produce the woman who would lead down through time to my mom. No shared work place in New York that let my parents meet. No any of the things required for this version of who I am to be who I am.
So, 150 years ago, a wheel was set in motion. And what a bumpy ride it’s been.
Boys called from mothers’ laps to war
dreaming the glory, not the gore
waiting to take them by the hand,
suck them dry, leave them spent and gone,
dead, staring eyes dimming the dawn.
More lives lost than anyone planned.
Taught in school this was all for me,
the country’s price to set me free —
loosed on this world, this promised land.