Lit­er­acy Nar­ra­tive

The Iowa Review - - THE IOWA REVIEW - Kiki Pet­rosino

Iwish to put my black­ness into some kind of or­der. My black­ness, my built­ness, my black­ness, a bill. I want you to know how I feel it: cold key un­der the tongue. Mean fish­hook of home­sick­ness that catches my heart when I walk un­der southern pines. And how I rec­og­nized the wa­tery warp of the floor in my great-grandma’s house, when I dreamed it. This is what her com­plain­ing ghost said: Write about me. I try to write about her. I try to write about her. Where did my black­ness be­gin? In Vir­ginia. With an African woman called Rachel and her wed­ding to Wil­liam Henry, half-english, halfChero­kee, who wouldn’t let his red hair be pho­tographed. It be­gan with some land, and their house, which sur­vived as a dark ring of chim­ney stones I once vis­ited. It be­gan with the bod­ies of Rachel and Wil­liam Henry, two si­lences, buried in the lozenge of earth they owned. But that is not how my black­ness be­gan. I wish to put it into some kind of or­der. Ashes, oys­ter shells, my mid-at­lantic bones. My grand­mama at twelve, walk­ing away from the farm in Vir­ginia, leav­ing the lit­tle Ne­gro school that only went up to sixth grade. I wanted to go to the sev­enth grade so badly I don’t know why. Grand­mama at fif­teen, six­teen, seven­teen, alone in D.C., at­tend­ing school and an­swer­ing ads for “light girls” to clean houses, to watch chil­dren. She wore her plain blue uni­form dress while serv­ing din­ner to the white fam­ily whose chil­dren she also watched. Grand­mama and her col­lege diploma, her gov­ern­ment job, her pleated skirts and gold cir­cle pins, years and years on her own. I try to write about her. I try to write about her. My black­ness smiles out from my skin, a friend. Here are my nar­row jaws and coil­ing hair. My color I’ve de­scribed in po­ems as “a high and dis­agree­able gold.” It is a friend, it is a friend. You can’t help but reach out for my black­ness, like the white woman poet who once pat­ted her palms down my hair, laugh­ing, “I’ve been want­ing to do that.” As if she’d fi­nally al­lowed her­self some­thing sweet and rare. So I for­gave her. Part of me likes be­ing looked at, be­ing rec­og­nized. It’s just as my Paw­paw would say of him­self, “I’m a good color,” and sit in the front row for group por­traits at the War Depart­ment. We have por­trait af­ter por­trait of Paw­paw in his busi­ness suit, pale pocket square, brown smil­ing face. A good color.

So I show up, at eigh­teen, on the fore­most riser for my univer­sity choir per­for­mances. So I get a solo. So I drink or­ange juice on Jef­fer­son’s Lawn with my choir friends, and bits of the Lawn lift them­selves on Char­lottesville breezes and drop into my cup. I drink Char­lottesville like medicine. I stalk the li­braries and lec­ture halls no one built for me, and my black­ness shows me a flick­er­ing host through the colon­nades: ker­chiefed women car­ry­ing laun­dry, ser­vants with horses, the cooks and car­ri­ers of fire­wood. How will I live up to them? I wish to of­fer some­thing. I wish for my black­ness to be fully known here, to re­solve into some kind of or­der. But I have no bas­ket name, no communal ex­pe­ri­ences be­yond the Latin hymns I learned in Catholic school. Back then, I still press my hair, pull it back. So I pass by, quickly. In graduate school, I don’t know how to mea­sure my black­ness be­yond the marks I make on the page. Those marks are black pix­els, the small­est phys­i­cal points I per­ceive on my screen. Only late do I feel it, my black­ness, livid and liv­ing. The word afro ap­pears in a poem and my pro­fes­sor sug­gests I delete it. He asks: Who are you really ad­dress­ing, in that mo­ment? And: Is this a po­lit­i­cal poem? It feels, to him, like a trick. As if I’ve drawn a sil­ver coin from be­hind his ear. The poem changes when marked by my black­ness, I learn. My read­er­ship splits, and some leave me. I imag­ine my read­ers gath­er­ing their coats, turn­ing up their col­lars against the sin­gle rain­drop re­leased by the storm cloud of my black­ness in a poem. I don’t delete any­thing. I write two books of po­ems. The first time I read Junot Díaz’s New Yorker es­say, “MFA vs. POC,” I feel noth­ing. I don’t rec­og­nize my­self in the cri­sis he de­scribes. “That shit was too white,” he says about his ex­pe­ri­ence as a Cor­nell graduate stu­dent. “In my work­shop we never ex­plored our racial iden­ti­ties or how they im­pacted our writ­ing—at all. Never got any kind of in­struc­tion in that area—at all.” Con­sider the two em dashes that stab those sen­tences; they con­tain en­tire land­scapes of si­lence and pain. But I don’t con­nect with any of that the first time I read the es­say, or the sec­ond. In­stead, I re­turn to mem­o­ries of UVA, to the “History of Lit­er­a­tures in English” sur­vey re­quired for ma­jors. There are hun­dreds of undergraduates in the hall; late­com­ers have to perch on the steps lead­ing down to the lectern. Junot Díaz’s Drown is on the syl­labus. It’s the first time I’ve en­coun­tered his sear­ing voice, and I ad­mire its com­plex­ity, how the nar­ra­tor of “How to Date a Brown­girl, Black­girl, White­girl, or Hal­fie” si­mul­ta­ne­ously winks and weeps at the broad stereo­types and sub­tle, un­writ­ten codes that an­i­mate his so­cial world. Díaz’s nar­ra­tor sit­u­ates

him­self within a dy­namic net­work of ur­ban Amer­i­can cul­tures, a youth­ful “in­sider” who at­tempts, with brave­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, to nav­i­gate all ter­rains, all lan­guages, all “girls.” Be­ing able to write across worlds like this—with irony, author­ity, hu­mor, and ten­der­ness—feels like a su­per­power to me. I, who have never lived among peo­ple of my own com­plex­ion or felt like an “in­sider” in any place, de­vour Díaz’s prose as much for its craft as for the in­for­ma­tion it con­tains about com­mu­ni­ties of color. It makes me jeal­ous. It makes me want to write. But while I dream of be­com­ing the kind of au­thor whose work ends up on a univer­sity syl­labus, it never crosses my mind that I could study with Díaz some­day. My en­tire ed­u­ca­tion has taken place in pre­dom­i­nantly white schools, in white towns, with white teach­ers. I never have a pro­fes­sor of color for any sub­ject un­til I ar­rive at the Univer­sity of Chicago for my first mas­ter’s de­gree. Af­ter I graduate and be­gin my MFA pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Iowa, I never have a teacher of color again. Like Díaz, I’m aware that I’m one of the few POC around the work­shop ta­ble, but at that time in my artis­tic life, ask­ing “Why don’t we talk about our racial iden­ti­ties in work­shop?” is like ask­ing why the oceans aren’t filled with or­ange juice. They just aren’t. We just don’t. So, I go ahead and have a happy MFA ex­pe­ri­ence. Hav­ing left no com­mu­nity of color be­hind, liv­ing in Iowa is not a hard­ship for me, not even a lit­tle bit. In Iowa City, I ex­pe­ri­ence my first sharp lit­tle inklings of be­long­ing to a com­mu­nity of like souls. I at­tend read­ings so thick with peo­ple their joy drifts like per­fume over the as­sem­bled chairs. Even­tu­ally, I start to read from my own work. Peo­ple ac­tu­ally stop me on the street to com­pli­ment my po­ems and en­cour­age my projects. I learn that this is no dream; it’s just how Iowa Ci­tians roll. The staff of the lo­cal in­de­pen­dent book­store greet me by name when I walk in to buy arm­loads of con­tem­po­rary poetry books. I do noth­ing but read, write, and fall in love. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, I stay in Iowa City to work at the In­ter­na­tional Writ­ing Pro­gram for four years. Ev­ery sin­gle day in Iowa, I get to talk with writ­ers about books. In his New Yorker piece, Díaz ex­plains his un­hap­pi­ness in work­shop this way: “I was a per­son of color in a work­shop whose the­ory of re­al­ity did not in­clude my most fun­da­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ences as a per­son of color— that did not in other words in­clude me.” If you had shared this quote with me ten years ago, I would have replied that I was try­ing, through my writ­ing, to for­mu­late my own the­ory of re­al­ity as a stu­dent poet. But the truth is, I didn’t think I had any “fun­da­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ences as a per­son of color” to be­gin with. Hav­ing grown up be­tween the black and white cul­tural worlds (and, there­fore, as a stranger to each), it took me

years to value my own life as “fun­da­men­tal” to any def­i­ni­tion of POC “ex­pe­ri­ence.” The last thing I wanted, as a graduate stu­dent, was to feel pres­sured to write po­ems about racial iden­tity ( Is this a po­lit­i­cal poem?). In­stead, I wanted to be “free to ex­per­i­ment with lan­guage,” across a va­ri­ety of sub­jects, just like my white class­mates could. In this way, I sidestepped the vi­tal con­ver­sa­tions I should have been con­duct­ing with my black­ness. Ev­ery so of­ten, I would meet a new graduate stu­dent of color, just ar­rived in Iowa City; they would con­fess their shock at the white­ness of the place, so dif­fer­ent from Brook­lyn, Los An­ge­les, and D.C. I al­ways felt dis­tanced from this sen­ti­ment, ac­tu­ally strug­gling to understand how some­thing like that could im­pact any­one’s hap­pi­ness and pro­duc­tiv­ity in an MFA pro­gram. Be­ing suc­cess­ful here is up to me, I thought back then. It’s my re­spon­si­bil­ity. That’s how deeply I’d ab­sorbed the con­ven­tions of what Díaz calls “the un­bear­able too-white­ness” of graduate school: I thought that work­ing through my cul­tural iso­la­tion on my own was a virtue. Iowa nur­tured me so well as a tech­ni­cal artist that, for most of my time there, I didn’t get around to nur­tur­ing my black­ness. Once at Iowa, I sub­mit­ted at least one new poem ev­ery Wed­nes­day for two years. The dom­i­nant ped­a­gog­i­cal ap­proach to work­shop priv­i­leged the ef­fec­tive de­ploy­ment of craft el­e­ments over the poet’s ex­pres­sion of “ex­pe­ri­ence” and “iden­tity.” Cer­tain po­ets were ex­alted in mul­ti­ple sem­i­nars, while it took me years to dis­cover other voices, just as vi­tal. We read Wal­lace Stevens, for ex­am­ple, to learn his phi­los­o­phy of cre­ativ­ity. Through his po­ems, we stud­ied how to con­struct metaphors with­out re­ly­ing on “like” or “as.” We learned from Stevens how to make po­ems whose unique struc­tures arise from the ur­gency of their “oc­ca­sion.” I loved th­ese po­ems. Out­side of class, I bought a used copy of Stevens’s Col­lected Po­ems and en­coun­tered the fifty-part epi­gram­matic med­i­ta­tion, “Like Dec­o­ra­tions in a Nig­ger Ceme­tery,” for the first time. My heart hurt at the ti­tle, even as I learned through fur­ther read­ing that it was Stevens’s way of re­fer­ring to the dis­junc­tive, ec­cen­tri­cally con­cate­nated struc­ture of the poem it­self. He saw in his poem’s form—with its as­sem­blage of frag­men­tary thoughts—an aes­thetic sim­i­lar to the “litter” of me­men­tos crowd­ing African-amer­i­can ceme­tery grounds in the 1930s. Still, the ca­sual cru­elty of the ep­i­thet stung me. And I won­dered: has any­one else seen this poem? I wanted to know how a poet ca­pa­ble of lifting me from my seat with beau­ti­fully sur­real im­ages of “red weather” could plunge me back into the blind nar­rows of a racial slur. And how, as a poet of color whose

an­ces­tors are buried in some of those ceme­ter­ies, I should rec­on­cile th­ese two ef­fects. But I didn’t talk about any of this in work­shop. Why would I? Now my black­ness walks to school with me, to the edge of the univer­sity cam­pus where I teach. We pause be­neath Louisville’s sev­en­ty­foot mon­u­ment to the Con­fed­er­ate dead, and we both look up, into the glint­ing mus­tache of the bronze in­fantry­man bal­anced on his gran­ite pedestal. An un­fin­ished civil rights mon­u­ment called Free­dom Park leads away from the in­fantry­man. A wooden per­gola shel­ters the names of activists from half a cen­tury ago. Some­time soon, they say, trees will be trans­planted here from the bat­tle­fields at An­ti­etam, Chicka­mauga, Shiloh. I don’t be­lieve my poetry can re­deem the past. There’s no poem I can write that will give voice to voices lost to time, or re­verse the rup­tures made by cen­turies of violence. When I write, it’s my voice. This is how I sound when I’m speak­ing to you. I know it’s not enough, but I of­fer it in this mo­ment. My po­ems have been praised for “scout[ing] a new path” through dif­fi­cult ma­te­rial, for ad­dress­ing heart­break with hu­mor. Al­ways, I’m aware of the gen­er­a­tions of sor­row that pre­ceded me. I don’t have the power to erase that sor­row, but I can write about it. As a poet of color, I work to make my art a wor­thy thing. Be­cause I’m not wor­thy, just lucky. Born in free­dom, walk­ing across cam­pus and into my day’s labors. I bor­row any book I wish from the li­brary, and I buy more books with the money I earn. When I sit down to write, I can choose any theme among themes. I don’t al­ways write about my black­ness; some­times I talk about space­ships, or break­fast. I write what pleases me. Still, my black­ness is there, in the very lan­guage that threads it­self across the screen. It’s in my lit­er­acy and how I feel it: a gift of threads. How does it feel to write my black­ness in a poem? Like prac­tice. Like mash­ing the pads of my fin­gers against gui­tar strings, making the shape for G un­til G hurts. And of­ten, it feels bright and huge, a room with­out walls I step into. My lis­ten­ing room. My li­brary. Where I can be with other po­ets who speak the many lan­guages of black­ness. I’ve found my way into this room, at last, and I want to share th­ese dis­cov­er­ies with my stu­dents now, while they’re young enough to make th­ese names part of their per­sonal canon. For my stu­dents, I fill my arms with books. For them, I turn page af­ter page. At school, I teach Evie Shock­ley’s The New Black, Thomas Say­ers El­lis’s Skin Inc.: Iden­tity Re­pair Po­ems, Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Mar­row, Natasha Trethewey’s Na­tive Guard, Shane Mccrae’s Mule. I tell my stu­dents, I tell my­self: Pay at­ten­tion to what th­ese

po­ets are do­ing with the son­net. Look how they break open re­ceived forms. Lis­ten to the mu­sic they make, how a poem that de­mands so­cial change can be beau­ti­ful at the same time. How it should be beau­ti­ful at the same time. I’m no mas­ter of or­der, of mu­sic, of black­ness. But I’m learn­ing to hum in mil­lions of in­ti­mate keys. In my po­ems, I wish to share my black­ness with the world, but it’s per­sonal, too. When I write, my great-grandma, Alverta, en­ters the room with her sad­ness and her cat-eye glasses. Her name sounds like a hair­pin bent back on it­self. She tells me about the big-city dreams she failed to catch. I want to say that her voice re­sem­bles mine, but it doesn’t. Alverta is Alverta. I pour her a cup of cof­fee, but she won’t take off her coat. So that’s the be­gin­ning. Write about me.

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