Big As Life

the women you are accustomed to

wearing that same black dress,
their bronzed hair set in perfect place,
their lips and asses tight;
these women gathered in my dream
to talk their usual talk,
their conversation spiked with the names
of avenues in France

and when i asked them what the hell,
they shook their marble heads
and walked erect out of my sleep,
back into a town which knows
all there is to know
about the cold outside, while i relaxed
and thought of you,
your burning blood, your dancing tongue.

— Lucille Clifton


I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about women’s bodies, about black women’s bodies, and about my own body in particular.  I’ve been fighting my way through the writing of an essay that needed to be submitted in late March (made it, thanks to my writers’ group).  The essay — “My Body Politic: Paying Attention to the Woman Behind the Curtain” — is going to be a chapter in the next WE LEARN anthology of writing from practitioners.

I had the shell of this essay in my head the moment I saw the call for papers last fall.  I cannot say how difficult it was for me to write the actual essay, however.  I was writing all over the place.  There are clearly far too many ways in which my body has been made an issue over time.  There was no way to corral all of that into one 7-page essay.  So a lot was dropped out of the final draft … and more may be dropped during the editing process leading up to publication.  But all of it is still ricocheting around my brain, still in my way.

Having all that needs-to-be-processed thought taking up head space is part of what inspired me to create this rhyme royal challenge for April.  Taken straight from what Sanchez said about using the stucture and confines of a poetic form to control things that are out of control.  It’s what I’ve been trying to get at with each of the poems I’ve posted so far this month, but I still have a long way to go.  I like the comment Raivenne left for the last poem:

I think your frustration is in the limits of the form itself. You have so much more to say, but can’t. You also have this daily time limit so you can’t let it simmer until you find a phrasing that pleases you as the writer as well. Just let the divine flow recklessly for now and walk away. You may find you like your original words much more with some distance. You may find a better way to say it later and change it. The words are yours to say and change as you please.

One of the things I kind of let myself forget is that the form is the form, but the poem doesn’t have to end simply because I’ve hit that seventh line.  The video I posted of Sonia Sanchez yesterday is of her reading a 15-stanza poem about Toni Morrison … and each stanza is a haiku.  I’ve done that with haiku, too, used the form but extended it, strung several poems together to create a whole.  And the rhyme royals Sanchez read to us from Does Your House Have Lions? were used in the same way.  I think I do tend to get caught up in the structure of things and forget that I still have the freedom to push at that structure and make it work for me.  (Like maybe creating a poetic form last year by combining tanka and acrostic?  What would that be … a tankrostic?)

In the essay I talk about how my body has always been unacceptable … and how the things that made me unacceptable also made me the focus of a lot of unwelcome sexual attention.  There was a lot of writing that hit the cutting room floor before I sent the essay in because none of that was the point I was trying to make, but trying to force the cutting room bits into these poems is feeling off somehow.

All the thinking I’ve been doing about my body and the ways I’m perceived and the ways people respond to me reminded me of something.  Years ago, I was on the street and as I passed two women, one said to the other: “Look at her.  She’s as big as life.”  I had already come to my “what-people-say-is-always-more-about-them-than-about-me” understanding of the world, so I picked at that statement to hear what might have been behind it.

“Big as life” … well, sure.  Shouldn’t we all be as big as life?  Because what’s the alternative?  Wouldn’t we be … I don’t know … dead … if we weren’t as big as life?  And, too, life is big and unavoidable, something not lightly dismissed or overlooked.  Again, shouldn’t we want that?  The comment implies that the speaker would rather be smaller — much smaller — than life.  What does that mean?  What does that say about how she sees herself?  She wants to be diminiutive, wants to be someone who can be easily overlooked, not taken seriously, she’s afraid of calling attention to herself?

I am definitely big as life.  I am not someone to be easily dismissed or overlooked … but that has much more to do with who I am than with the size or shape of my body.

The things I’m trying to write about are as big as life, too … but I’m trying to harness them, push and squeeze them so they’ll fit into a more manageable space.  And maybe they’re not meant to do that.  Maybe they just have to be as big as they are.

I arrive whole,
honey on my tongue, open hands
extended, offering           not soul
but neither the stretching demands
or shifting sands
of a hopelessly-romantic fairy tale.
Just a woman.  Whole, fierce, frail.

And so my heart, like my hands,
is open, free —
its silvered waters and green lands
offering warmth, energy,
passion — my love like a tree
ablaze in spring’s green shoots
running, sap-full from leaf-tip to roots.


Here’s a link to a wonderful song called Black Mermaid.  If you scroll past the lovely lyrics, you can listen to the song.  Thanks Aichlee for sending me over to Esthero’s page!

(Boy, talk about all over the place!  This post needs to be turned into a rhyme royal of its own, bring it a little more under control!)

Achin’ for Acres

P1030057No more elders passin’
without my kids askin’ —
“Papa, whose tombstones are those in the yard?”
Family gotta stay close,
all us gotta stay close …

— Arrested Development, Achin’ for Acres

The first time I heard this Arrested Development song, I thought: tombstones in the yardReally?  I don’t think so!  But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve, well … thought about it, and thought about how much this makes sense.  Why wouldn’t you want to bury your dead close to you?  And as the song makes plain, you can’t do that if you don’t own the land you live on.  My landlords are lovely people, but I can’t imagine they’d have been too thrilled if I had suggested digging up the back garden so I could keep my aunt close.

When I went to Jamaica, I started seeing small sections on people’s property sectioned off in some way or other and then noticed that these sectioned-off bits were personal cemeteries.  At first I was a little taken aback, but no more.  I actually find something warm and comforting in this idea.  Why should you have to pay crazy amounts of money to have your loved ones buried among strangers?  Why should you have to follow someone else’s timetable in order to visit a gravesite?  And cemeteries are rarely conveniently located.  Why should I have to travel for hours to sit with my father, his parents, Mildred, her mother?

P1030056This particular burial place was a surprise to me.  It’s at the edge of a beach and doesn’t immediately seem connected to anyone’s home.  My guess is that this bit of land, which is at the base of a hill, sits below the family home.

P1030072This is a gorgeous place to rest.  Shaded by several kinds of flowering trees (including Lignum Vitae, the national tree of Jamaica), facing a quiet beach and the open sea.

Every time I’m in Jamaica, I think of Achin’ for Acres, think about the meaning of family land, of having your own piece of earth and being able to pass that on to the family that comes after you. 

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights as a woman, as a man.
Man, oh man, my choices expand.
Ain’t got me no money, but I got me some land.

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find

Still in concert memoir mode …

A favorite of all the shows Fox and I went to was Oingo Boingo at the old Ritz downtown.   We loved Oingo Boingo, and not just because it was fun to say their name.  They gave a great show, and we had a lot of fun.  Afterwards, we stayed and danced until the shaking of that rickety second floor got to be just a little too unnerving.

The opening act had been the Ben Vaughn Combo.  We had no idea who Ben and his combo were, but we were game.  And then they came out … and we loved them.  I was still pretty deep in my Eastern European period, so it didn’t hurt that the bass player reminded me of Alexander Dubček, but it’s also true that they were fabulous.  They played a song I’ve never forgotten, A Good Woman I Hard to Find.  It’s a song with the strangest and most excellent lyrics.  Verses like:

There was an earthquake in Brazil.
There was an earthquake in Brazil.
A good woman is hard to find.
A good woman is so hard to find.
There was an earthquake in Brazil.

Can’t say enough how much we were loving them. 

And then one of Ben’s guitar strings broke.  And then I don’t know what happened.  He shook his head, said he couldn’t go on … and left the stage!  The band hung out for a few minutes, clearly expecting him to come back.  When he didn’t, they left, too. 

We were pretty amazed.  The crowd tried to clap them back, but no luck.  Too weird.

I’m glad Vaughn has gone on to all kinds of musical highs since that odd night.  I haven’t exactly followed his career, I’ll admit, but I’ve looked him up every once in a while since my introduction to the internets, and he’s been out and about, a busy and successful guy.  Which is just as it should be.  For me, though, he’ll always be that one wonderful song that I can still sing all these years later after hearing it only once.

(A good woman is hard to find.  A good woman is so hard to find.  There was an earthquake in Brazil.)

And When October Goes …

It’s almost November first … and that means NaNoWriMo is about to start!

What’s NaNoWriMo, you ask?  Why it’s National Novel Writing Month of course!  It’s a big, wacky-ass writing challenge, in which you are charged with writing a novel of at least 50,000 words between midnight, November 1st and midnight, November 30th.

I’ve taken up the challenge since 2003, and the change it has made in my writing has been amazing.  My NaNoWriMo writing is all basically crap, but my ‘real’ writing has turning into something so much stronger and more fluid.  Who knew churning out 50,000 words of shlock could be so productive?

So this year I had a crazy thought.  What if I try this with my students?  I’m not going to do the night class, I don’t think.  There’s such a different vibe in there now that all but one of the girls are gone.  My morning class, however, could be interesting.  It’s a big group — about 25 people! — and they have much more faithful attendance.

We talked about this yesterday, and they’ve accepted the challenge: not to write 50,000 words, but to write as much as we can in 30 days.  We’re going to set aside time each day and just write in silence …  This should be interesting, to say the least!


I can’t end without giving more of a nod to Mr. Mercer and his lovely, melancholy lyric.  I loved this song from the first time I heard it.  The melody was written by Barry Manilow.  I’m serious.  Mercer and Manilow.  It’s pure and clean and so refined it’s hard to remember Manilow also gave us the Copacabana song (not that I don’t love that saga of Lola, Tony and Rico, but …).

When October Goes

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smokey roofs
I watch the planes go by

The children running home
Beneath a twilight sky
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years

I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go

I should be over it now I know
It doesn’t matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go


Today I was walking through the subway station at Atlantic Avenue (for those who are unfamiliar with this station, it’s huge, like a tiny city underground) and, as I transferred from the 3 to the N, I heard somone playing “Imagine” on the cello.

I love the cello. Love the cello. The sounds it makes resonate in my heart and feels like home, like peace. I actually stopped for a second, turned to try to find the musician, but he or she was hidden, maybe on an LIRR platform. The sound was so clear, so elegant and sad. All morning I’d been blasting Rage Against the Machine in my ears (“Wake Up,” “Take the Power Back” and “Know Your Enemy” in particular). I don’t remember why I pulled my earphone out, but I did as I walked up the stairs, and that’s when I heard the cello. I pulled the other earphone out so I could listen and think about the words as I headed for the N.

Yeah. Imagine. Imagine living in a city where things like the killing of Sean Bell never happened … or happened once and we learned enough from it to make the changes in our hearts and heads that would mean it wouldn’t happen again. Imagine living in a place where the police officers who killed the innocent, unarmed man were actually held accountable for that killing. Imagine.

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.