Arts & Culture / The Reading Room / Vol. 2 No. 1-2

Dis/Place and other poems

Virgie Ezelle Patton, Black 'm-Oceans: Close Quarters

Image Credit: Virgie Ezelle Patton, Black ‘m-Oceans: Close Quarters, (1985-2012), Oil on Canvas, 48 x 38, Courtesy of Ezelle-Patton Family Collection


In this place, we swear and sing and hail and honk. This is a noisy little island, loud in color, exuberant in sound. We paint our houses the colors of flamingoes and goldfish, vivid indigoes, mints, saffron and coral. Even the sunsets are washes of hasty undiluted color, quick bursts of sky-art that fade into stars, gleaming and polished stitched into the pitch-black night. We stand at the corners, whistling at our women, psooting at their shining brown and carmel and light. Thickness, dahlin’, sugga plum, douxdoux—we wrap our lips around the words and throw them like pillowed arrows, meant to fly harmless but true. We break into fireworks if they throw back a smile. We sweat and fete, wine and rumble, invite the hours to swig rum with us, the minutes to stretch themselves across the sand and sun themselves to thick, sweet, slumber.

Some of us wonder how it is they leave this place, the ice-caps, the ones who board planes for Canada, America, England; wonder how they bear the cold we only know on television screens. What does one do with a world covered in white, blank as a page without a story, sunless and dim? Don’t they miss the melting? The way heat cracks a body open, makes a furnace of your bones? But they are the restless ones, their dreams like coconut trees reaching and reaching for a sky the rest of us know is there but have no desire to touch. Easier to tell a tree don’t grow than tell them stay put. We let them go where they must. Some come back, haloed in snatches of cloud. Some we never see again, but we imagine them swaying up there, lost in the blue.

Others of us only dream the scent of the ocean. It enters our chests heavy as desire. How to live somewhere so completely surrounded, so completely cut off from anything but itself? An island is an island, and a man on an island has no choice but to be either himself or to be the land he walks on. Where else could he go? Around him is only the sea, the graveyard or shame of his ancestors. As far as his eyes or his dreams can see, there is the silent, waiting sea.

We have no use for silence. Even when there are no words, sound moves through us, tidal and changeling as water. We sawed drums from steel, and stitched music from every kind of skin. We made instruments of our hands and throats, our bellies and feet, slapping and stomping and whopping and humming. Babambaimiaels. Paddumdedums. Glossolalia every tongue’s second language. We have forgotten the language of home and live now in this creole we’ve made of our conquerors’ tongues. Our speaking desecrates them, our spit rolling over their words, our rebellious breaths making songs of the shards. Every syllable saying we are not wholly yours.

We used to live on a continent. We used to worship orishas. We used to wrestle lions and lived in lush limitless jungles. We knew the expanse of deserts, and more land beneath our feet than a lifetime could walk across. Then. Some of us were sold. Some of us were stolen. Some of us died before we left that place, and some of us died in the leaving. Some of us landed here, on this island, its landscape like a vague memory of what was left behind. The sun was here, but it was not our sun. There was earth here, but it was not our fathers’. There was ocean, too close for comfort, too filled with secrets to trust. Here, we could not speak. Our names, wrenched from us, could not, would not, pass our lips, and this land did not know them, could not bring them forth from us.

But time has made natives of us, and we claim every hill and field, every waterfall and river. We have planted and harvested this island, let seep into it our sweat and longingness, the songs in our blood that would not, could not, die. We have thrown down roots deep as origin, forested this land with stories and children. We place candles on the ocean and send our prayers to whichever gods gave us new names: island people, rainbow country, land of steelpan and soca. In this place we remain; in this place, we became. And here we are.

Thirteen Tongues
For the victims of the former police officer and Oklahoma City rapist, whose name shall remain unspoken

To say a thing is no small power:
I searched for your names
to baptize my tongue
in their halting thunder.

I searched for your names
in the breaking news, to find it
halting, the usual thunder
muted: no headlines, no flashing—

your breaking broken quietly;
your echo stranded in the margins
below a politician’s open mouth
and yet another terror of terror.

Echo, stranded, margin, he named you
emptiness to be filled, nothing
but wet and open mouths
to answer his endless hunger,

his un-fillable emptiness.
He thought you nameless and without
your own hungers to answer,
your own bright spirits burning, blue.

He thought you nameless,
but I baptize my tongue
and call you swords, summoners, sisters.
Your names, spoken: no small power.

For the 49 dead and 53 wounded at a gay bar in Orlando, FL 6/12/16
Thasos, Greece

When the tears come—
slow, stingy, salt-heavy—
the night is empty of music,
the voices have shuddered
to silence, the refrigerator’s
stuttering punctuates the dark.

Enter terror.
Enter forty-nine new names
for heartbreak.

Here, on an island I thought
beyond the clutch of reality,
I meant to write about olives
—the way they weep
against the fingers, the slick
luster of their taut nubs,
how they call to the tongue,
seduce the lips to pucker
and smack with their tender
flesh, their aftertaste of salt.
But here is the club, a throbbing
carnival of light: a strobe of stars,
neon moons, sun-hearted
bodies pulsing. The queered dark.
Here is the boom of the DJ’s
spin of salsa, reggaeton, Lady Gaga.
The anti-gravity of dance.
A miniature world turning,

then not.

I wanted to write about olives
—the way the Greek light glides
over the skin of a kalamata
so that it becomes an eye,
capturing everything; a mirror,
giving the world back—small
miracles we fill our mouths with
then spit out after we’ve consumed
their magic.

But forget miracles.

I’m trying to understand
the alchemy of self-loathing,
how it can harden into bullets
that fell bodies like unready fruit
from shaken trees, split a night
open into a pain so bladed
it cuts 4000 miles away, pierce
a stranger’s olive grove heart,
shrivel its fruit with grief.

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