Mary Walker, "Facing", monoprint/woodcut, 8 x 11 inches, 2003.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Thomas Chatterton Williams

President Obama's 'Rap Palate': Why praise misogynistic hip-hop stars?
What's on President Obama's iPod? A wide range, he told Rolling Stone magazine last week, from the jazz of John Coltrane to the ballads of Maria Callas. And more: "My rap palate has greatly improved," Mr. Obama noted. "Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated, but now I've got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff, but I would not claim to be an expert."
Expert or not, that's the wrong message for the president to be sending black America.
Does Mr. Obama like Lil Wayne's "Lil Duffle Bag Boy"? In that song, the rapper implores young black men to "go and get their money" through round-the-clock drug hustling. And with Lil Wayne, it's not just an act: The rapper is currently serving a one-year term on Rikers Island after being caught in New York with drugs and guns stashed in his Louis Vuitton overnighter.
Lil Wayne is emblematic of a hip-hop culture that is ignorant, misogynistic, casually criminal and often violent. A self-described gangster, he is a modern-day minstrel who embodies the most virulent racist stereotypes that generations of blacks have fought to overcome. His music is a vigorous endorsement of the pathologies that still haunt and cripple far too many in the black underclass.
Thus President Obama has conveyed his taste for the rapper behind lyrics like:
Put that white widow weed in the cigar and puff
look, ma, I'm trying to make a porno starring us
well not just us, a couple foreign sluts
Naming thuggish rappers might make Mr. Obama seem relatable and cool to a generation of Americans under the sway of hip-hop culture, but it sends a harmful message—especially when, in black America, some 70% of babies are born out of wedlock.
More from Lil Wayne, a native of New Orleans, the nation's perennial murder capital, who devotes his ingenuity to making black-on-black homicide sound fly:
We put that steel on
red beam, safety off
murder scene, tape it off
redrum, tomato sauce
Just as disturbing is Mr. Obama's appreciation for Jay-Z, the rapper and unrepentant ex-drug dealer whose real name is Shawn Carter. Not only did Jay-Z earn a mention from the president in Rolling Stone, but he's been photographed sitting in Mr. Obama's chair in the White House Situation Room.
Mr. Obama is certainly not responsible for hip-hop's grip on black America, or for Mr. Carter's ideas and behavior. But what president would ever let Marilyn Manson drop by the White House? Is Jay-Z any better?
In the song "Show You How," Mr. Carter—who also calls himself "Jay-Hova," as in God—rhymes:
Listen man, get a crate, some crack and some house slippers
a newspaper, a lookout boy, and get your chips up
or get a gun, a mask, an escape route
some duct-tape'll make 'em take ya to the house
For so many black Americans, Barack Obama is appealing and promising precisely because he represents a powerful, necessary alternative to Jay-Z's version of blackness.
That's why I cheered when Mr. Obama, then a little-known state senator, inserted himself into the cultural debate during the 2004 Democratic National Convention: "Children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white," he declared. And it's why I cheered again last year when he told an NAACP gathering that, "Our kids can't all aspire to be LeBron [James] or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers."
The president is entitled to his friends and aesthetic tastes. But he undermines his own laudable message and example when he associates himself with a hip-hop culture that diminishes blacks.


Lydia Millet

Walking Bird
    One of the birds was lame, struggling gamely along the perimeter of the fence. The bird was large, a soft color of blue, and rotund like a pheasant or a hen. Its head was adorned with a crown of hazy blue feathers, which had the curious effect of making it seem at once beautiful and stupid.
     A family watched the bird. It was a small family: a mother, a father, and a little girl.
     The fat blue bird had white tape on one knee and lurched sideways when it stepped down on the hurt limb. The little girl sat on the end of a wooden bench to watch the bird, and the mother and father, tired of walking and glad of the chance for a rest, sat down too.
     This was inside the zoo’s aviary, an oval garden with high fences and a ceiling of net. Here birds and visitors were allowed to commingle. Black-and-white stilts stood on straw-thin legs in a shallow cement pond and bleeding heart doves strutted across the pebbly path, looking shot in the chest with their flowers of red.
     The little girl watched the lame bird solemnly as it hobbled around the inside of the fence. There was something doggedly persistent in the bird’s steady and lop­sided gait; it did not stop after one rotation, nor after two. The little girl conti­nued to gaze. At first the mother and the father watched the little girl as she watched the bird, smiling tenderly; then the mother remem­bered a household problem and asked the father about it. The two began to converse.
     The zoo was soon due to close for the day and the aviary was empty except for the family and the birds. Small birds hopped among the branches and squawked. Large birds stayed on the ground and sometimes made a quick dash in one direction, then turned suddenly and dashed back.
     A keeper came into the aviary in a grubby baseball cap and clumpy boots. The little girl asked her why the lame bird did not fly instead of walking. The keeper smiled and said it was a kind of bird that walked more than it flew. “But can it fly?” asked the little girl. “Could it fly if it wanted to fly?”
     The keeper said it probably could, and then she moved off and did some­thing with a hose. The mother and father talked about flooring. The little girl got off the bench and followed the lame bird, clucking and bending and trying to attract its attention. It ignored her and continued to walk along the inside of the fence, around and around and around.
     The aviary was not large so each circuit was completed quickly. But the bird did not stop and the girl did not stop. After a while the father remembered his life outside the aviary, his office and car and his stacks of paper. His presence in the aviary became instantly ridiculous to him. He got up from the bench and told the little girl it was time to go. The little girl said no, she was not ready. She wanted to stay with the bird. The father said that was too bad. The little girl tried to bargain. The father became angry and grabbed the little girl’s arm. The little girl began to cry and the mother waved the father away.
     It was several minutes before the mother could fully comfort the little girl. During this time the father left the aviary and opened his telephone. He paced and talked into the tele­phone while the mother sat on the bench with the little girl, an arm around her shoulders. He waved to the mother and pointed: he would wait for them in the car.
     The mother told the little girl her father loved her very much, only he was busy. He had stress and pressure. He did not mean to frighten her by grabbing. The little girl nodded and sniffed.
     When the little girl was no longer agitated her mother wiped the tears from her face and the little girl looked around. She told her mother she could not see her bird anymore. Her mother put away her tissue and then looked around too. The bird was not visible. Through the leaves in the trees came a glancing of light; the stainless steel dishes were empty. The water in them was still.
     The mother looked for large birds on the dirt of the ground and did not see them. She stood and looked for small birds in the green of branches but did not see them either.
     “Where is my bird?” asked the little girl.
     The mother did not know. She did not see the lame bird and she did not see the other birds. She did not even hear them.
     And yet time had barely passed since the birds were all there. The mother had barely looked away from the birds, she thought now. She had only attended for a few minutes to her child’s brief and normal misery.
     “It’s time to go, anyway,” said the mother, and looked at her watch. “The zoo is closing.”
     The little girl said that maybe the birds flew out at night, through the holes in the net into the rest of the world.
     The mother said maybe. Maybe so.
     As they left the aviary the little girl was already forgetting the bird. She would never think of the bird again.
     There was almost no one left in the zoo, none of the day’s visitors. But it seemed to the mother that the visitors she did see, making their way to the turn­stiles, were all walking with a slight limp, an unevenness. She wondered if they could all be injured, every single one of them debilitated: but surely this was impossible. Unless, the mother thought, the healthy ones had left long ago, and what she now saw were the stragglers who could not help but be slow.
     Ahead of her the limping people went out and vanished.
     Along the path to the exit the cages seemed empty to the mother: even the reeds around the duck ponds faded, and the signs with words on them and images of flamingos. The mother looked upward, blinking. In the sky there was nothing but airplanes and the bright sun.
     The mother’s eyes felt dazzled. The sky and the world were all gleaming a terrible silver. How she loved her daughter. Urgently she took hold of the little girl’s hand. She felt a brace of tears close her throat.
     Why? It had been a fine day.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sarah Messer

Starting with that time

for calling him pretty, hey pretty, your hair's 

like spun sunshine, and then
the man fell down dead. Son of a
tin smith, he had inherited
those quick but delicate hands, and
always went for his revolver
as quick and absentmindedly as
an itch the same way he went
for those squirrel-boned
women even smaller than himself
with breasts like shallow tea-cups.

As an outlaw, he fell in love
with the wrong women—a seamstress 

who sniffed glue, who sewed
her own sleeves to her arms
and flew off a bridge; a sad-faced
war nurse; a rich Northerner
who carried her father's
jawbone in her purse—
each one disappearing more
from herself, until he found
that he was mostly in love
with the shadow of a dress,
a wrist, or the outline of a mouth

pressed to the glass on the window
of the next train leaving town.

In the meantime, he killed:
any man who could ever be called
his friend. Ambushed the town
of Independence, killed 12
at Olathe, 20 at Shawnee, tied the scalps 

of those he suspected most
to his horse's bridle, and rode
west. The mayor of Lawrence,
Kansas suffocated in a well beneath
his own house as the whole
town burned, the contents of every
train and wagon turned over.

In the end he came to me
because I was the timberline, way out 

west, the last stand of trees.

Each night I told him about
the guns hidden in my house:
a .44 caliber in the chamber pot, a rifle 

beneath the stairs, bird guns between 
folded linen, revolvers hidden
in drawers, on shelves, the four boudoir 

pistols plastered in walls, wrapped
in the hair of dolls.

He hid himself inside the sheen
of Smith and Wesson, the one breech 

double-barreled Winchester,
my only Navy Colt. He hid because
I was the hideout, the inert
and sturdy home where he polished 

his thoughts, the timber
of each trigger, the powder
in the coffee tin, the bullets
in the freezer.

In the end, I was
the safest place for him

to put his mouth.

Third Coast, Spring/Summer 2001

Fred Marchant

Against Epiphany

What god was it that would open
earth’s picture book and see the two
of us on a road, snowfields glittering
on every side and poplars bent like
the fingers of an old man clutching
what he loved about the sun?
Which one was it that would peer
into our thatched, white-washed
farmhouse, and see the fur, flies,
and shit-stained walls? Which one
laughed at the barbed wire fences,
the wall topped with broken glass?
Which of the many who came then,
gleaming and rimed in hard sunlight?
Which of those who bobbed like ice
along the winter shore? What did
we have that any god would want?
Quick, if you can find it, hide it.
Fred Marchant, “Against Epiphany” from The Looking House. Copyright © 2009 by Fred Marchant. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press,

Ada Limon

What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use

All these great barns out here in the outskirts,
black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass.
They look so beautifully abandoned, even in use.
You say they look like arks after the sea’s
dried up, I say they look like pirate ships,
and I think of that walk in the valley where
J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,
No. I believe in this connection we all have
to nature, to each other, to the universe.
And she said, Yeah, God. And how we stood there,
low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,
and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets,
woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.
So instead, we looked up at the unruly sky,
its clouds in simple animal shapes we could name
though we knew they were really just clouds—
disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.
Poem copyright ©2012 by Ada Limón, whose most recent book of poems is Sharks in the Rivers, Milkweed Editions, 2010. Poem reprinted from Poecology, Issue 1, 2011, by permission of Ada Limón and the publisher.

Dana Levin


The father died and then the mother died.
                  And you were so addicted

to not feeling them, you told no one about the clamp   

around the vena cava. Dam against the blood's

But I've got you now. Trussed at the waist   
                  in a wooden chair,

odor of spice and   
                  oranges, clove-pierced, incandescent stores   

                  to light our lab's decor—

Here. I saved this just for you.
                  Beetle-cleaned and sharp at the tip, the finger that shook

in your set face   
                  from the hand that smoothed your hair—

Make a fist.
                  Wrap the tube round your fleshy arm, pull the black rubber

                  will we finally

see the sludge of their accumulated mouths, ah, you've said,
                  how they poisoned me...

Pierce in   
                  with your mother's finger-bone, taste the slow up-well—

                   Sweet. Surge ambrosial and clear—

A honey, an ichor.   
                   From those who waited long   

                   in your veins.
Source: Poetry (June 2007).

Carolyn Forche


Just as he changes himself, in the end eternity changes him.
On the phonograph, the voice
of a woman already dead for three
decades, singing of a man
who could make her do anything.   
On the table, two fragile   
glasses of black wine,
a bottle wrapped in its towel.   
It is that room, the one
we took in every city, it is
as I remember: the bed, a block   
of moonlight and pillows.   
My fingernails, pecks of light   
on your thighs.
The stink of the fire escape.   
The wet butts of cigarettes   
you crushed one after another.   
How I watched the morning come   
as you slept, more my son   
than a man ten years older.   
How my breasts feel, years   
later, the tongues swishing   
in my dress, some yours, some   
left by other men.
Since then, I have always   
wakened first, I have learned   
to leave a bed without being   
seen and have stood
at the washbasins, wiping oil   
and salt from my skin,
staring at the cupped water   
in my two hands.
I have kept everything
you whispered to me then.
I can remember it now as I see you   
again, how much tenderness we could   
wedge between a stairwell   
and a police lock, or as it was,   
as it still is, in the voice
of a woman singing of a man
who could make her do anything.
Carolyn Forché, “Reunion” from The Country Between Us. Copyright © 1981 by Carolyn Forché. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Maggie Dietz: "Dream of Me"

Dream of Me    Click to hear in real audio
If you are the dreamer, I am what you dream.
—Rainer Maria Rilke

I am just a dreamer, but you are just a dream.
—Neil Young

You'll notice my face is longer, horse-like, my legs
slender as a horse's, showing through the gown
worn threadbare by my loping. The rein drags
behind, a long rope of hair, it tapers around
trees and you follow, embarking: the test.
On the banks, my breath makes a fine blue mist.
You are lost, so listen for the sound of my lungs,
like doves rustling. The mossy roots make rungs
and you climb down into the music where couples
are dancing a waltz on my back.  Each rib
makes a note when they step that redoubles
in the belly of the river beneath us, the crib
of civilization, with legged fishes, tiny
ancient seahorses. We are floating toward the dream's
destination: see the braid flung down my spine?
Follow it up, climb the knobbed ridge, lean
over, flip into my ear. The drum will glow
and beat. Until you don't know where you are,
proceed, until air is scarce, your breathing slow.
I'll wake you then, before you go too far.

Originally published in The Cortland Review 16