Friday, May 30, 2014

Before a Common Soil - Ifeanyi Menkiti

Before a Common Soil
by Ifeanyi Menkiti
(Read at the Wellesley Class of 2014 Baccalaureate)

Let this then be your understanding,
You sons and daughters of the ancient starts
That your home reaches beyond
The earth which is your home.
May you go forth across the land
And with the movement of flutes
Celebrate the blessings
Which the gods have given you.
May you catch the shifting of the light
At the tip of the flute's tongue;
And may you ask of the darkness
That it remain with you
Lest the light lose sight
Of whence it came.
Yes, I have heard song
The power of which was not of the world
Though the singer of it was in the world;
And I have called out to you,
Children of the undivided earth,
That you join your hands together
And be of one accord before a common soil--
Lest the rivers cease to water the land,
Lest the voices of the singers be forever stilled.
Yes, I have heard song
The power of which was not of the world
Though the singer of it was in the world.


I wondered, what if Walt Whitman had been sitting in this window seat, staring out through a plastic oval at the continent passing beneath the wing of this aircraft? What would he have said?

What would he have written, while observing his beloved country from 35,000 feet?

There would have been so much for an awe-struck mind to write, to sing about:

..the clear view, between wispy clouds, of the irrigated green circles and those circles only just-plowed;
of the alluvial clays, snow-capped ridges, and winding rivers;
creases within fruitful valleys overseen by battalions of windmills;
slopes darkened by parsley-sprinklings of forests, roads following topographical  lines and not;
the sharp spines of younger mountains crackling with frost;
one sky, many blues: azure, powder-blue, milk-glass blue, an elusive hint of a convex horizon;
a winding canal, as if a gigantic earth-worm had passed through;
shadows of clouds thrown askance on the shades of green and earth;
the cerulean bloom of a lake amid the creeping glint of semi-desert;
soils red and purple, muddy-brown poison pools, with green edges;
further on, bolder cloud-shadows, echoed by the blue-gray imprints of thousands of lakes;
hints of drought and circuit-board towns, land scarred and tilled, and a dearth of mountains;
the flat continent, a chessboard with lines drawn impossibly straight;
there the borders of a tamed prairie blur, between New Acadia and its more aggressive neighbor,
waiting for the birth of a white buffalo calf. The holy forests.
What cannot be seen from here: laughter, tears, a one-legged man limping along a road;
a girl weeping in an alley-way, the children riding their bicycles.

What can be seen: a thousand iridescent puddles, rows of corn in the fields;
a fresh-water sea, a lake so vast, its edges are hidden from our perception.

"I am water, I am why, why, why, I want people to heal me, heal my heart;
Do not hate man, but do not love one who kills his mother;
heal me, heal me, hear me. We failed to tell you how we sing;
we sing of the bear and the mind of the whale,
covered melodies you cannot hear;
I love you, love you, love you, save my life;
follow the perilous path, and beware."

An aquamarine haze skirts the islands in the heart of a great lady.

"A man will be with you as he is with his mother.
If he is harrowing her, he will harrow you.
Beware. You cannot be loved if She is not loved.
Tell the earth she is your body and be with her.
Skin is part of your body.
Keep your soul by waking your skin. Be with it.
Hallow your body. Feed it. Take no wild for granted.
Be a hero, a hero is my life that can be with you if you save,
save the dew, save the bees, kill no one."

Another great Lady-lake passes below:

"I am your soul, be with me now;
I am your wide sea, I am your peril,
keep me wild, keep me awake, keep me whole;
I fade, my love, o my soul, where is your eye to see what I am?
I fear your love, I fear your touch.
I am your soul. When your body is in a marriage with your soul,
it says, pick my body up and love it.
My Terra, Terra wanted to tell the men, Wait.
They raped my body, and I am your pain and your body,
can't you feel it? There are men who have known no woman until they raped her.
This is what we have known.

"What is love? Find me. This is your soul, calling.
Let a man wear our pain for a while,
let him cover you with a cloud-comforter.
Be a seal of my love.
Be alive.
Be a fire.
Begin anew. Love a wild man."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

first leg of a flight

For one of the first times since I was a teenager, I am flying alone.

There is no one on my lap. No small snoring head bobbing on my shoulder. I do not need to play tic-tac-toe with anyone, to soothe any small body, reassure, supply gum, fix headphones, offer food, a shawl, or any other tidbit of my soul-and-life-blood to another person, to bridge the gap between the pain in their ears and the thrill of take-off.

What a marvelously rare freedom, for me. I seize the opportunity to look around. The couple in front of me are middle-aged Old Believers. Both are gussied up in the finest of synthetic fabrics. The wife has on a classic West Coast sarafan, a dark brown background smothered with giant pink roses. Her hair is tucked tidily into an obligatory hot pink married-woman-headgear, threaded with some sort of sparkly silver thread that practically glows in the dark. I assume she sewed her husband's long rubakha herself: it is a lilac-pink, nearly the same shade as the roses on her dress, decorated with machine-embroidery roses all around the collar (how in the heck did she manage that, I wonder). I imagine them in caricature, like two face-cards in an Old Believer deck. They could be the Rose King and Queen.

Hovering in the air, I consider sleep. My mind races wildly, partly due to the latte I imbibed just before midnight, but also due to the fact that it registers that I Am Flying. As in: all of those flying-dreams we wingless primates are prone to, have come true for the moment. What do I do with this? I should be sleeping. I cup my head in my hands and lean onto the tray table, letting the sensations roll through me.

While we are airborne, my feet decide to wake up. With a sudden flash of bodily insight, my soles (souls) realize they are not near the ground any longer, so they, contrarily, decide to reach out and connect their energy with the planet, and I feel strangely rooted, as if I'm more conscious of the soil while in the air than I am while taking the first few tentative steps in bare feet in the Spring. I wish my feet could somehow share their wild wisdom with my goofily caffeinated brain.

The Old Believer pair stand up, ready to exit the plane. Himself is wearing a white satin sash, tied like a belt around his rubakha. His wife's sarafan, as is customary, is fitted just above her waist (practically speaking, this allows for the expansion of one's figure and makes maternity clothing unnecessary), which causes her bosoms to leap forward like a perpendicular shelf. I allow myself to be disappointed that Himself is wearing the most ordinary blue jeans under his festive rose-lilac shirt. Oh, well.

We have safely landed in Portland, not the most glamorous of airports. Hurrah! It is, oddly enough, carpeted. Perhaps this is an element designed to muffle the fact that the airport appears to be a series of giant hangars with skylights. Time to sample more caffeine, and to savor the unusual freedom of being able to Just. Wander. Around. Until it's time to shuffle onto the next plane.

The most decorated section of PDX, so far.

This might be the tin can I am flying on to Bahston.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Your Night Is of Lilac - Mahmoud Darwish

The Night-Blowing Cereus, Dr. Robert John Thornton's Temple of Flora, 1799

Your Night Is of Lilac


The night sits wherever you are. Your night
is of lilac. Every now and then a gesture escapes
from the beam of your dimples, breaks the wineglass
and lights up the starlight. And your night is your shadow—
a fairy-tale piece of land to make our dreams
equal. I am not a traveler or a dweller
in your lilac night, I am he who was one day
me. Whenever night grew in you I guessed
the heart’s rank between two grades: neither
the self accepts, nor the soul accepts. But in our bodies
a heaven and an earth embrace. And all of you
is your night ... radiant night like planet ink. Night
is the covenant of night, crawling in my body
anesthetized like a fox’s sleepiness. Night diffusing a mystery
that illuminates my language, whenever it is clearer
I become more fearful of a tomorrow in the fist. Night
staring at itself safe and assured in its
endlessness, nothing celebrates it except its mirror
and the ancient shepherd songs in a summer of emperors
who get sick on love. Night that flourished in its Jahili poetry
on the whims of Imru’ el-Qyss and others,
and widened for the dreamers the milk path to a hungry
moon in the remoteness of speech ...

Note: According to Mahmoud Darwish, Exile's Poet: Critical Essays, there is a play on words in the original between the word, night (layl) and lilac (laylak), which also means "your night."

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Evening came to the izba. The loom ceased its clatter. Vasilisa filled a dark iron kettle from a bucket of spring water, and set it on the shelf of the white-washed pechka, and the few droplets on it spoke with a satisfying hiss. She walked over to the wardrobe and took out a quilted coat. The coat was patched together from the odd ends of her woven work, and embroidered with curious symbols and flowers. Vasilisa slipped it over her shoulders, and reached for a pale spiderweb-knit scarf to cover her hair.

"Verochka," she murmured, "I'll be back in a bit."

Vera recognized the fire in Vasilisa's eyes. She nodded, and waited until the older woman's lapti were behind the door. Then she did what she had been wanting to do all day. She walked over to the shelf and touched the wooden matryoshki.

"Marya, Varya, Darya, Varya, Zarya," she chanted. She slid open the dolls, each smaller than the first, realigned them, and set on the table. She counted five dolls, which meant that one was missing. When she shook Zarya, she heard a rattle. Sliding the smallest doll open, she found a few sunflower seeds.

"There," said Vera. She placed a seed before each of the dolls, and waited. The eyes of the first doll began to glow like tiny fireflies.

"You have very good manners," she heard Marya say. "What do you need?"

"Tell me," insisted Vera. "Tell me who you are."

Marya laughed. "That is the correct question," she answered. "You might well ask, 'Who am I?' We belong to Vasilisa, but she loves you, so we don't mind talking to you. "

"Were you there when Vasilisa saw the first Horseman?" Vera wondered.

"Yes," said Marya. "That was the Bright Dawn. We first met him when Vasilisa was abandoned in the forest, beaten, hungry and terrified. She had been sent, by the ones who did not love her, to Baba Yaga to borrow fire. She gripped us tightly in her hand, while the first shining rays of light began glowing on the horizon. Then a horseman all in crimson galloped past: the Red Sun. She went further and further into the forest, until she came to a little hut built on hens' legs. The walls around the hut were formed from human bones, and crowned with skulls. There was a gate in the wall, whose hinges were the bones of human feet, and whose locks were jaw-bones set with sharp teeth."

The White Horseman, Ivan Bilibin

"I've heard something of this," said Vera. "And then--"

Marya interrupted her, "---Then the third horseman appeared, dressed all in black, and galloped straight through the gate. That was Black Night. With him came a dread chill, and a curtain of darkness covered the forest."

The Black Horseman, Ivan Bilibin

"I know that part of the story," said Vera. "Then  the forest was filled with a terrible noise; the trees began to groan, the branches to creak and the dry leaves to rustle, and the Baba Yaga came flying from the forest, riding in a giant mortar and driving it with a pestle. And the skulls atop the gate each began to glow like eerie lamps.  I have heard this. And they say that Vasilisa was ordered to perform all sorts of strange tasks, which you did for her. How did you do this?"

Marya laughed again, a teensy, tinkling giggle. "This is the part of the story you may not understand. Of course, she did all of the work herself, but she didn't realize it, because she sent part of her spirit into each of us, to keep it safe. A baba must do what she has to do."

The Red Horseman, Ivan Bilibin

Part II is here;

Part III is here.

Part IV is here.

Part V is here.

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