The ReMix begins: 2004 draft cuts: (in parens)– 2017 adds: IN CAPS:
After the election, I saw and felt a frozenness–I NEEDED (wanted) poetry (to arrive and speak to me–) to convert (a tableau of different shades of) dread to (a weave of) courage and CUT A PATH TO transformation. TO ROAR. I wanted something to take AND SPEAK the pain, (naturally). And poetry can hold IT (every complex yearning).
The Remix: After the election, I felt a frozenness—I needed to dread courage and cut a path to transformation. To roar. I wanted something to take and speak the pain. And poetry can hold it.
I couldn’t write much–stabs in the gut, blood running cold. And anger. Ohio kept returning–a place of hope made mute. The anger was personal. My father’s clan settled in Elyria, west of Cleveland, having moved from the freeze of St. Albans in northwestern Vt in the early 1800’s to join other brothers and start a tannery. Years later, my Pt Townsend student spoke to me about the possibility of her people trading with mine across the Canadian ”border.”
When I fled New England’s grip, I went to a radical college in southwestern Ohio. I grew to love the rivers and creeks, limestone cliffs, caves and gorges running below the fields of corn and pigs. I remember going to the auction in Springfield where we sat alongside families on long pine benches in an old shed by the railroad tracks to bid on furniture for our communal house–Black families, white families, lined in rows, some from Dayton, some from the surrounding smaller towns. An old washer with a frayed cord blew up in a blue haze of smoke. The caller’s fast patter moved on to the next item without a stammer. It was the Ohio of poet James Wright (who I first read at Antioch) calling to: “my rotted Ohio…/my back-broken beloved Ohio./ I, too, was beautiful once, Just like you…/lonesome, /And sick at heart,/Frightened,/And I don’t know why.//help.”
I tasted cold, Ohio’s winter drizzling on, sleet, ice and bleak cold–snow lean in the hardened brown field furrows and graying ice. Then there was Kent State–four dead in Ohio–when student protestors in Kent, Ohio were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen, while protesting the Vietnam war. I was in Gabby’s Soul Food downtown when the talk began, “They’re shooting their own children now,” a woman’s voice, level as anyone who has lost plenty and survived more. Antioch College became the media center for all the information on the ground for Kent State and broadcast live, 24/7, for two weeks from Kent. All that flatness hit like the back of the hand, full-force across the face, a sharp wind, remembering now the start of my war at home.
Ohio has a soul. Why does this have to be proven to people from the east? I remember the story about my father getting drunk at a party of academics in Cambridge, Massachusetts–and repeating, “my grandfather was an eminent plumber.” He was sore, and no one at the party got his irony. “They were just too pleased with themselves,” he’d say. My father, the person who taught me the meaning of the word emblematic.
In 2004, I wanted to know what happened from Ohio, on the ground, not from some other place that never thought Ohio mattered. Toledo mattered where more young Black voters registered more young Black voters than any city in the state under P. Diddy’s VOTE OR DIE banner.
The drear of Ohio’s early winter, soul underneath, racial histories entwined, Blacks journeying north and settling in Ohio–my father grew up beside more Black families in Elyria than I met in my early school days in the east where, as a youngster, in the 1950’s, I met only Black individuals, called exceptional, in the eastern school system, people like my second-grade school teacher Mrs. Rawlins, until I went to Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1969, home to the first African American Studies Institute in the country.
How can this mixed up story of Ohio in 2004 break through to the country? Do I need to say this is not a new story–the burial of Ohio as I revisit what I wrote in 2004: Not a fancy story, but made of old-fashioned lying that spread its ugly hands all over the state and repeatedly spread the news by repeating the lying as news. How you could almost hear the jubilance in the truth burying through the post-election eve–bitter cold nights and days… An emptiness loomed, leaving signs of something missing, something stolen from earth’s soft belly.
At the time, I asked how will I write about Ohio? Frozen-tongued, stumbling in grief, I remembered being struck in wordless yearning during my mother’s death. The question: how to hold death and write about it? The nature of grief led me to a sestina as the required repetition can bring blood back to words. Words doubling as nouns and verbs can snap alive. I felt a chorus coming from the ground and blowing hard across the fields—sharp, not pretty.
Ohio means beautiful river–and the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh called for all the tribes to unite and fight against the white settlers and armies. He called for a united front, first from Ohio and later, travelled the country warning and urging all the tribes to come together and fight against the growing, orchestrated deadly threat of whites. When he was killed, his body disappeared up a limestone creek bed and into the caves along the underground stream trails just west of Springfield, north of Yellow Springs and east of Dayton. What happened on the ground in 2004 Ohio matters.
A sestina for Ohio: I knew that”cold” and “stab” would be two of the six words. Six endwords used in six stanzas in a set alternation and the last stanza composed of three lines using all six words in an envoi for a send-off. What happened on the ground in Ohio STILL matters and I offer an excerpt of the sestina from Ten Minutes (Firm Ground Press, 2012) to join the groundswell:
How I Came Looking for a Poem in the Doorway of a Community Center Where the Voting Lasted All Night in Gambier, Ohio, November, 2004
The first snow came fast, a gluey sheet across Ohio, soft earth below, …
Slashing sleet in Gambier, breath rose from the line standing 10, 12, 16 hours
in the cold.//
She said it was hard to hold the flimsy punch cards between her still-soft
and keep the ballots’ chads from falling (like the rain) into muddy pockets
Rock in hand, the world feels hard, dry and old,
while opening a fist brings stinging bloodflow back to fingertips
darkening the palms to plum as pain begins to stab
out a life. Workers scramble on a break, don’t see their names on the list below
and jump into pick-ups to cast ballots at another location, …/
They glare at the line, … have to get back to work, and know they are breaking
their word, leaving without voting. NPR will not be carrying the breaking
news: there is nothing new from the touch screen just a return to the same cold
name. Franklin County awarded an extra 4258 votes … a healthy stream
four times larger than the tally of voters, maybe wormed up from the dead,
these prize fingertips …//
… Three times I’ve heard a fight begin, a stab
of anger among friends arguing over whether McCarthy was worse, breaking
the meal into dust …/
into sorrow’s gut–then stopped. It will take all we have to stay bold
and still allow numb grief to enter without stripping us
… to uncover a softer touch, to lift Ohio from its sad dream
bloodying through, a stab at love. How will we find a a rightful stream
of action, familiar as the smell of fingertips ready to take bread and break
pale and dark loaves among strangers in the cold–Ohio.
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