Source: Come with me to Berlin!
I must admit that I’ve yet to read The Underground Railroad, although it’s high on my list of books to get to soon. This quote gets to something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, for longer than we’ve had a fascist leading our country, a man most everyone in America disapproves of, except for white men.
And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes–believes with all its heart–that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.
Photo of Coleson Whitehead from Wikipedia
I had the pleasure of meeting Cole Lavalais, a fellow Chicagoan, down in Memphis during the Mid-South Book Festival of 2016. Her responses to panel questions really struck me, and I became interested in her work.
Below is an excerpt from her The Toast interview, in which she discusses black spaces, magical realism in black women’s fiction, and mental illness. I recommend reading the whole thing and getting Cole’s Book, Summer of the Cicadas.
There’s a thing about mental health. It almost seems as if it’s the last frontier of where we don’t feel bad about teasing and making fun of folks that are going through mental illness. We still get memes of people or videos — “oh, look at this person! She’s crazy!” When we see someone unraveling, as a society, it seems like it’s still okay for us to poke fun, in ways we would never do if the person had cancer or some other disease. What I really hoped to do is to start that conversation so you can truly understand that this is truly a mental illness. Just because it can’t be cut away and you can’t get a shot and it’s fixed, it’s not that easy, it doesn’t make it any less.
Photo of Cole Lavalais from her website.
If you’re happening across this website and live in either the Minneapolis or Racine area, I hope you’ll come out to hear me read. I’ll be reading from The Fugue and talking about the artist’s role in a fascist state.
I’ve had the pleasure and honor of reading together with Roger Reeves on a few occasions here in Chicago. I think you’ll appreciate what this poem does to you.
cymothoa exigua*: the tongue as what it is not—blemish
and parasite: gimp and glottal stop: what question can be
answered with a truant mouth: can the lynched man hung
from the sails of a windmill taste the lead pipe wedged
between his lips: when the signifiers dangle, empty chum
lines in a cold creek: when the men in Waco, wearing white
straw hats, fraying at the crisp edges of their white shirts,
leave Jesse, leave John, leave Paul in ashes in the unpaved
streets to choke passing mules into prophecy: when we pinch
our noses to staunch the smell of the twice burnt black man
burning for a third time this day: when the boys, sweet
and good animals, come to what’s been left in shallow ditches:
false rib and femur, clavicle and severed hand—quite simply,
the language of sorrow: glyph of the gadfly rooting himself
into the rotting meat of the dead: when it is too late
to refuse our bodies being made urns: corn, unharvested
and heavy in its husks: when, in the marketplace, the butcher lifts
our tongue from a bed of ice, shouts: who will speak for this flesh:
when the tongue answers as all severed tongues do:
Cymothoa exigua is a parasitic crustacean that attaches itself to the tongues of spotted rose snappers and extracts blood from the tongue until it atrophies and falls off. Then the parasite attaches itself to the nub and acts as the fish’s tongue. According to scientists, the fish is not harmed in the process.
Photo of Roger Reeves from the Whiting Foundation
I missed a few days due to some matters I won’t get into. My apologies. I hope this beautiful poem by Rita Dove makes up for it.
We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.
Photo of Rita Dove from Wikipedia.