Reviewed by Artress Bethany White
I, like many Americans, recently read that Erica Garner, the daughter of slain African American police suspect, Eric Garner, died shortly after giving birth. She named her son Eric, after her father who was killed in a street bust for selling loose cigarettes. In the aftermath of her father’s death, Erica became an outspoken activist. In turn, her sudden death at the age of twenty-seven, after becoming a new mother, foregrounds the price many people of color pay for striving to survive in America.
African American women are not a monolith, and the stories of black female survival are varied and complex. Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W. W. Norton and Company, 2017) joins the current roster of black women’s memoir on an enthusiastic upbeat. In it, she chronicles a broad swath through the demands of motherhood, the writing life, and travel as lived life and survival tale. (More …)
The years before my grandmother’s ascent,
each week a trip, my father’s hand would steer.
Her small apartment wedged inside the steel
tenth-floor suburban tenement, intent
to be a box for those we loved to die.
I asked my father why, rebuked silence.
A plan to die, her brave gift, defiant.(More …)
I still dream of a broken deer.
I could almost say I was raised
on long unpaved roads with no street lights,
journeys from suburban malaise
to the sharp focus of trees, snow and roads.(More …)
Each time I fly I look a little longer out the window, so that’s good, that’s maybe
upgraded depth perception, but who knows since I didn’t take physics
on the Smoking Block as a girl in overalls in a Mustang at the fair
sitting cross-legged in the back with a joint or a bottle or some other joy thing
you wake up concussed in Maine in the snow
without a Doberman Pinscher. & where
have all the cats gone & where the flock
of kids? & weren’t they more like
ghouls & specters & / or mostly just sad
& handicapped back when you lived with them (More …)
I know a lot of mountain people who’ll leave home
for maybe 24 hours like they think they’re obliged
like they think they signed a contract but must
return ASAP is my point to lie flat on the ground
to slowly rub the Kentucky Bluegrass & even the
Hairy Bittergrass no matter the season or temperature (More …)
I wake at 3 a.m. in this America,
head split with migraine, pain
like a spear. I swallow
prescriptions, sleep until noon.
I’m sweat-soaked and dreaming
strange dreams of America. (More …)
Erin is sitting on the floor
of our dorm room.
Erin with the thick red braid
and the freckles the sun had tossed
across her face. Erin who is pretty (More …)
“In every alley of the theatre loom the silhouettes of portly gentlemen in top hats who have come to take their pleasure with these skinny half-naked adolescents. They too will have learned to mime desire.”
But what if they have come instead to make pleasure
by force? Sometimes the body flushes
when it shouldn’t. Someone says,
I am going to teach you something.(More …)
At your wedding, you lifted up your dress
so I could attach your garter belt to your stockings.
My hand was shaking even though we still had
the strange intimacy of girls,
so you had to reach around and clip the belt yourself.
I failed you and the whole history of femininity.
But we lived in a time of elastic. (More …)
—I’m able to love
the abandoned amusement parks
in the dark, unhumming guts
of refrigerators lining this rezoned sidewalk
and the boutique olive oil stores and tea shops that,
let’s face it,
are already on their way.(More …)
When the universe begins to rip apart
in they say about ten billion years,
I will still love your hair.
They say a lot of things, though. (More …)
Past dark fields of winter
wheat, each hill swells and troughs
the talk between my grandmother and me. The further we travel,
the less the landscape changes, just vague
waves in the blooming dark, the pollen
of yellow farmhouse lights. (More …)
All my life I’ve
been levelheaded because I grew
up knowing horizon; sky as baseline,
prairie as high-water mark.
The songs my body knows: (More …)
What it is to run without
restraint away from
anything: the wind, a car horn,
an aspen leaf that flashes
me to flight, to bound past
the boundless field leaving (More …)
The other morning I picked up a hitchhiker and it turned out to be Walt Whitman. The beard should’ve been a dead giveaway, but I didn’t put it together at first. Most tramps wear beards like that, honestly: long, scraggly things all yellowed around the mouth with nicotine. You’d think it’d be easy to tell a poet from a bum, but it ain’t.
I was at a standstill on the Limehouse Bridge, the Stono River shimmering below. A few other vehicles were waiting to cross, but most folks had already evacuated. Walt Whitman was walking all lazy down the median, his grimy thumb stuck up in the air, looking pitifully into car windows as he passed. He had a battered guitar tied to his back with a piece of rope. When he got to my truck, he mashed his face against my window and just stayed there, leering at me until I finally surrendered and said, “Alright, come on then.”(More …)
Friday, 2 p.m.
“His spinal cord’s severed,” the voice on the phone says. “They helicoptered him to Emergency in Birmingham.”
My legs crumple, and I land on my butt. I’m in Panera Bread, behind the order counter, on their phone. Moments ago, I joined my writing group for our weekly meeting, and Jamie handed me a phone number. The hospital called the restaurant, seeking me. Gary’s been in a car accident, Jamie said. She and the two other members of my group sit in a booth ten feet away, oblivious to the words I’m hearing. (More …)
In Anchorage, the director of 49 Writers lent me a hat she’d gotten in Nome. It would keep me warm as I traveled farther north. Sealskin on the outside plus a beaver-pelt lining meant hardly any cold got in. Ropes of stiff yarn ending in fur pom-poms brought the earflaps nearly to my chin. When we finally do get to the AC, an Iñupiaq woman selling colorful handmade parkas (at six hundred dollars, I won’t buy one, though I will be sorely tempted) will ask to look at the hat. Upon inspecting its craftsmanship, she will compliment the maker. I won’t admit it is just mine on loan. I like the idea of someone thinking such a fine, warm hat belongs to me. Wearing the right hat for Barrow helps me feel less out of place. (More …)
I follow my fifth-grade classmates, single file, down several flights of narrow, wooden stairs into a dimly lit room, yellowed with age. As we crowd together, waiting for our eyes to adjust, no one speaks, but everyone is searching. And then we see it: On a small table, beneath thick protective glass, lies Jefferson Davis’ death mask.
Our teacher, Mrs. Griswold, tells us in hurried whispers to, “Line up. Pay your respects.” We take our time, merging together, until we are single file, our eyes focused on the mask. The weighted heaviness of his features is horrifying and fascinating: The large peanut-shaped nostrils and high bridge of his nose, the hollow cheeks, and long thin lips turned down at the corners. Pennies cover the eyeholes. I stare and stare at this mask until the features blur. And then right before my eyes, the beloved Confederate President transforms into the Union President. It is an optical illusion, created by the pennies. The mask now belongs to Abraham Lincoln: same nose, same cheeks, same mouth. Completely different person. It is Lincoln’s final victory over Davis. Now you see him, now you don’t.(More …)
I was walking in woods with a friend. She said, “I hope you can get us back.” I didn’t know if I could get us back. We were looking for something to burn. We were going to take magic mushrooms and offer ourselves up to the irrational. We came to a stream and crossed it. On the other side was a house with a man and a dog. The man was exceedingly handsome and wearing a cowboy hat. I asked my friend if he was the type she would fall for. She said, “I think men like that won’t be attracted to me.” I thought everyone was attracted to her. We passed a clump of dried pods on sticks. They were ugly and beautiful and looked like the thing we should burn. On the way back, she spoke about her ex-boyfriend and said, “I was very turned on by him, but when I saw his films, I thought, ‘You are a man I want to strangle’.” After sex, they would look at each other and say, “Attraction is all we have.” I thought it sounded romantic. (More …)
A stranger visited my mother’s apartment and said, “I live across the street. I have been watching you and your husband for twenty years, and I notice he’s gone. I can’t believe anything but death has separated you.” She pointed through my mother’s curtains to her building. She was small and wearing a navy pants suit and patent leather flats. My mother offered her tea and cried in the kitchen. Tiny leaves were budding on the bony branches of the bougainvillea on her terrace.
I was living in Columbus, Ohio on the top floor of the nondescript house where famous woman-hater James Thurber had lived. The house sat on a forlorn street, near two highways and a thinly-populated business zone. I worked in a circus, riding a unicycle and juggling clubs. I dreamed of lions and did not pay attention to safety instructions. (More …)