When media words—fake or otherwise—blare from angry people, I find myself reciting poetry. Four years ago, long before the swampy political landscape, I decided to fill my mind with loveliness. Even my carved cat looks like a poetry lover, mulling over my collection. My initial motive for memorizing poems was not all that pristine. I had a vision of myself in a few years, dressed in housecoat and pink slippers, wandering hallways, yelling at aides, spewing vitriol. Maybe, while my mind is still clear, I could memorize a few poems.
Where to start? The answer for me was not a favorite title, but speaking the words, hearing the cadence, rhythm, and at times, that old-fashioned technique called rhyme. I read aloud poem after poem. The first one in my book is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet,” where she tells of her need of music, a song to soothe her anger,
A song to fall like water on my head. . .
Now my notebook contains 30 poems I know by heart. Each allows a scene to rise from the page and fill my mind’s space with beauty. And oh, those words. So, hopefully when I’m trundling along in my pink slippers and housecoat, I’ll have something nice to say.
Next on my list?
Natasha Tretheway’s “Rotation” and that luminous first line:
Like the moon that night, my father. . .
If I am looking for a lull or a reprieve from the world, Tretheway’s poetry is not the place to go. Her poems find expression not only because of her own mixed-race family roots, but because of her scholarly research into colonial art works depicting the mulattos and mestizos and those whom history has forgotten. From these sources she creates poetry that is unflinching in its depiction of slavery. In one poem I imagine the medieval artist’s representation of Cosmas and Damian as they graft the black leg onto the white patient. Tretheway reflects that “The Ethiop is merely a body, featureless in a coffin, so black he has no face.” In another poem I see in my mind’s eye Juan Rodriguez Juarez painting of the woman and the “red beads/yoked at her throat like a necklace of blood/her face so black she nearly disappears.”
The poem I want to hold in memory is her exquisite meditation on Velazquez’s Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus. It is not Jesus, but the mulatta who is the centerpiece. She is the copper bowl and the jars in front of her; she is “the stain on the wall the size of her shadow–the color of blood. . .” Tretheway gently dares me to share the lot of the ones held in thrall. Kitchen Maid calls me into captivity, into my own complicity, my own prejudice and bias:”How not to see/in this gesture/the mind/of the colony?” Thrall is the perfect title for her stunning, troubling collection of poems.
In Copenhagen, I stand next to the bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen whose fairy tales remain key childhood memories. My list of books to re-read in 2017 deal with memory.
- A View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller. I recall a deep empathy; cannot remember why.
- Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. A simple memory of summer and beautiful language.
- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens. Will David stay a favorite Dickens’ character?
- Enemy Women, Paulette Jiles. I loved this novel of women POWs during the Civil War.
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Laura Numeroff. Hope I still smile page after page.
- King Lear, Shakespeare. The manipulative old man, stripped clean, fascinates me.
- Kristin Lavrandatter, Sigrid Undset. For years I’ve said “Someday I’ll read this again.”
- The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi. The camp’s water pipe remains unforgettable.
- The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan. I missed too much of the Palestinian-Israeli history the first time around.
- Thrall, Natasha Tretheway. I’ll make sure I have the art piece next to each poem.