O Whiskey Tub! You used to be easy like Sunday morning on a Saturday night. Sudsy hot water (man wash!), trusty glass, whiskey, ice, evil Sudoku puzzle, pen, music, and our old pal, Painter’s Ladder. Things were pure in those days.
Then comes that complicated acquaintance, Book. Yes, complicated. In the beginning, Book is good. Book is colorful image and happy rhyme. Book, like Song, encourages attention early in the day and sleep at naptime and night. Numbers and letters march and tumble about, showing us the 123 and ABC of our tribal ways, organizing days and nights with advice and behaviors that encourage a one-size-fits-all system even if we live in different neighborhoods in different ways. Book does its best to teach us things we might not want to learn, things that might not even be good for us, might in fact be lies or, worse, propaganda to push an agenda that folks consider or want to be considered the natural order.
In those first encounters, Book is made of material durable enough to withstand our every effort to rip it apart, to gum it to a digestible paste perfect for mouth-to-butt recycling. Soon we’re standing in a library that teaches us reverence for Book by running us through BOP (Book Obeisance Program): no scribbling in or coloring pages, no folding down corners, no talking loudly around books, no throwing them down the aisle or out the window even if they say stupid shit like Apollo is high clarity (AKA white, male reason) and Dionysus, dark instinct (plug in any number of Others: women, folks of color, homosexuals, children, etc.). BOP doesn’t get all of us, of course. No system is leak-proof. A few of us meet after school and start a book-burning club. We make lists. We decide on the means of combustion and publicity. We storyboard the event to make sure we do it right. Then we learn that if we want to destroy a bad book we’re supposed to buy it first. That makes no sense to us. Soon we’re standing in a bookstore and see a paperback title that tilts the odds, torches the rules. Of course, Steal This Book quickly becomes a bestseller, and we are once again confused and never the same.
The short of it goes like this: our parents and grandparents, first enablers, gave us our initial taste and handed us off to teachers and other habitual users who upped our game, taught us tricks of the trade. Together they encouraged a drug some of us would not survive. John Locke had the right idea.
Don’t get us wrong. Most days we love Book. We have in fact loved a good many over the years and we have not always been careful. (Is there a one-size-fits-all rubber or diaphragm a lazy reader can wear for protection? No?) We’ve made mistakes, some worse than others. And we’ve made some good choices, some better than others. Occasionally we come across a book, or a passage, that saves us, keeps us whole. It’s usually a book or a passage that means nothing to someone we know, might in fact be reprehensible to them. Or boring.
This evening’s Whiskey Tub revisits a couple of favorites, books that, with keen intelligence and an empathetic heart, not to mention first-rate writing chops, smartly part the curtains and take us to places we wouldn’t otherwise (have much of a chance to) go, places where privilege protects some, endangers others. We might have picked other books by these two writers. Breath, Eyes, Memory, for instance Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah.
Except what it Shoulda Been for starters is Krik? Krak!, that beautiful first book of Edwidge Danticat’s, which I read back before the quartet of Davendaughters began their staggered descent. Trouble is I can’t find my beloved copy. Trouble also is that I have no memory of how I chose to read it in the first place. I’m not the sort of reader who looks at newspaper reviews and National Book Award finalist lists. Sometimes a book’s cover grabs at me and the content or the writing tightens its grip. Sometimes a friend recommends a book because you are (okay, I was) the laziest undergrad English major she knows and it challenges and changes you (uh, me) as a reader. I imagine I stumbled upon Krik? Krak! in a bookstore and was taken first by the image of a young Ms. Danticat on the cover. I would have been in my early forties and looking at a very successful writer fifteen years younger than me. Maybe two years into taking my own writing seriously, I would have opened the book, seen the fragmented prose, and felt an immediate kinship.
But that’s not the Danticat we’re flipping through tonight. Tonight’s a heartbreaker of another kind, structurally at least. If Krik? Krak! is nine stories and an epilogue that suggests the connectedness of the women in the nontet of stories, The Dew Breaker, also nine stories or chapters long, is a novel that gathers momentum as the reader discovers the family secret. What to say about the book without giving away that secret? As with most books that keep my attention, it’s not the big surprise I’m reading toward, though I do feel myself being pulled through the pages. It’s the warp and woof of the black-on-white, the qualities of the voice, the relationships between characters, the vertical drops down into behaviors and minds that keep me tethered to a book. I love the relationship between the odd, distant father and the disgruntled, grown daughter in “The Book of the Dead,” the first piece, more than I care about what happens at the rich Haitian American actress’s house. I am moved in the next chapter, “Seven,” by the love the husband feels for his wife, who is just now arriving after seven years from Port-au-Prince. I wish I had written these words: “She wanted to tell her husband about that neighbor who had slept next to her in those days after he’d left and in whose bed she had spent many nights after that.” Or a page later, this: “He did not want to trespass on her secrets. He simply wanted to extinguish the carnivals burning in her head.” And so on. These are the Danticat moments, expertly made, that I count on, that I read her for.
Spoiler alert! Yes to all the blurbs collected in my paperback edition of The Dew Breaker. Yes to the stunning brutality of a book whose title means “torturer.” Yes to Nadine’s humanity and perceptiveness in “Water Child.” Yes to the sense of place and the gap between generations in “The Book of Miracles.” Yes to the very different journeys back in “The Night Talkers” and “The Bridal Seamstress.” Yes to the way tension ramps up in the male-centered world of “The Monkey Tails” and prepares us for what’s to come in the last third of the book. Yes to the fragmentedness of “The Funeral Singer” as it recalls Krik? Krak! and its attention to the suffering and strength of women as they drink “to the terrible days behind us and the uncertain ones ahead.” And no and yes and no and yes goddamn to the final (title) story, the last five pages of which re-break my heart every time I read them. I would type the passage here, every word, but you don’t need me pointing at them out of context. You need to read the book on your own and get blindsided like everyone else who comes to those pages at the end of a consuming read.
I set the book aside, ignore the Sudoku puzzle waiting beside the pen, pour a second double, and turn from Haitian turmoil figured through a broken family to Hurricane Katrina figured through the “bitch-monikered, hipped” and “rudderless woman in full tantrum” that celebrated poet Patricia Smith makes of her in Blood Dazzler. Just three years after Katrina hit New Orleans with crazy force, Coffee House Press published Patricia’s fifth book of poems, a sequence that begins with the siren call of New Orleans, its “stupid beauty,” the “shattered beads, stomped flowers, [and] vomit” (vii) Tourist or Townie might find underfoot any evening. In “Prologue–And Then She Owns You,” Smith makes of New Orleans a woman who, despite her “scabs,” “collapsed veins,” and a singing voice made of “cigarettes,/ public sweat, [and] brown spittle,” or because of them, will draw you in, addict you to “her brick hips, the thick swerve she elicits,/ the way she kisses you, her lies wide open.” And touching “that raw space/ between cock and calm,” she takes you, makes you hers.
She grins with glint tooth,
wiping your mind blind of the wife, the children,
the numb ritual of job and garden plot.
Gently, she leads you out into the darkness
and makes you drink rain. (viii)
In other words, she will do to you what Katrina will shortly and ferociously do to New Orleans. She will drown you. And that’s before the Table of Contents and the countdown to deluge that begins on page one with the aptly titled “5 P.M., Tuesday, August 23, 2005,” a persona poem that closes on this lazy, therefore all the more ominous, flash of strength: “I pull in/ a bored breath. The brine shivers.”
From there Smith flashes her own considerable power and stores of formal inventiveness as she charts Katrina’s movement and narrates the damage in poem after poem. Upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane in the second of the time-stamped poems (“5 P.M., Thursday, August 25, 2005”), Katrina “needs to croon in every screeching hue” and “strives to know waltz, hesitation,/ small moments in the sun.” If there’s a weather center for poets, I’m calling another upgrade in: Blood Dazzler is the moment on Patricia Smith’s map that she ticked from tropical storm to hurricane. A master poet, Smith puts on a show of muscularity and range as she “spies pattern and restlessly hunts the solid drum” (4). She jabs at failed government response (or the seeming indifference) and leaves marks on the arrogance and ignorance of Privilege in poems like “What To Tweak” and “The President Flies Over.” In the epigraph to “Thankful,” considering that it comes just pages after the horrors described in “Superdome” and “Dream Lover,” Privilege, figured as the First Lady, suffers a deep cut that won’t be sewn shut easily: “What I’m hearing is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality . . . And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this–this [chuckles slightly] is working very well for them” (48). Yikes. Thank you for the upgrade. Privilege, figured as the President, is knocked into the ropes, if not to the canvas, in “Getting’ His Twang On.” The epigraph–“George Bush plays guitar with country singer Mark Willis; 2 p.m., August 30, 2005”–sets up the hard right (some complained sucker punch) that Smith delivers here:
They spur him on with spurious laughter.
The cowboy grins through the terrible din,
the flashing bulbs, the rampant ass kissing.
And in the Ninth, a choking woman wails
(italics)Look like this country done left us for dead. (22)
And so it goes in Blood Dazzler. Here’s Katrina (“8 A.M., Sunday, August 28, 2005”) when she’s elevated to Category 5, which for a hurricane is a guarantee of first-ballot election to the Bad Storm Hall of Fame.
Now officially a bitch, I’m confounded by words–
all I’ve ever been is starving, fluid, and noise.
So I huff a huge sulk, thrust out my chest,
open wide my solo swallowing eye.
You must not know
Scarlet glare fixed on the trembling crescent,
I fly. (11-12)
And Smith flies too (Helluva!), right along with Katrina (Damnation!). In “pattern[s]” built to the beat of a “solid drum,” those that announce form in their titles (“Ghazal,” “Tankas,” and “Ethel’s Sestina”) and those that develop it more freely but no less terribly, we are lifted and thrown by Smith and Katrina from one stunning moment to another, right through the worst of it, and beyond to the aftermath in “Rebuilding” (“Paint the rubble pretty, hues gone berserk/ with dry hope.” ) and the sun, glorious drying agent, that soon wears out its welcome by “blaz[ing] the stench forward,/ rebirthing rot and workdays” (“Voodoo VIII: Spiritual Cleansing and Blessing” 77)
It’s no secret that Smith honed her storytelling chops on stage as the four-time National Poetry Slam, champ, and it’s a safe bet that she’s the only person ever to have completed what should now be known as the Patricia Smith Triple-Crown: Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, and HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. Blood Dazzler is a powerful book, deserving of the praise it received, from blurbs a Mount Rushmore of American poets (Mark Doty, Carolyn Forché, Terrance Hayes, Yusef Komunyaaka) through any number of positive reviews to its inclusion in NPR’s Best Books in 2008 and its status as a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry. The other finalists, all men, were all heavyweights: Frank Bidart, whose 1997 volume Desire was a finalist for The Big Three (Pulitzer, National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award) and the only poet to have a chapbook (Music Like Dirt, Sarabande 2002) be a finalist for the Pulitzer;Reginald Gibbons, long-time editor of Triquarterly, site of Patricia’s first published poem; Richard Howard, Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Foundation Genius Mark Doty, winner of an NBCC award, a finalist for an earlier National Book Award, and oddly (or does this happen every year?) the author of the first blurb on the back of Blood Dazzler, which he describes as “a sorrowful, unflinching, and glorious book.”
I know where I was the night Patricia didn’t win the award because her friend Mark Doty did. I was standing at the mic before a small audience at Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport, reading poems from Uncontainable Noise, a few that would make their way into Overpass, and Blood Dazzler. I read two or three of Patricia’s for Louisiana, a state my family called home for a few years a few decades ago, and I read them for Patricia because I wanted the audience to send enough energy to the National Book Award ceremony to win Patricia the award. We failed.
Last Saturday was a fail too. I was ready for this Whiskey Tub, #3, Danticat and Smith. In my happy thoughts, the hot water was pouring into the tub and making man wash of the sudsy bubbles, Paint Ladder was doing his part to carry the pen and the puzzle, the two books, the whiskey and the glass full of ice, and then it dropped, the George Zimmerman verdict, and wiped the evening away. For days I’ve been reading blogs and columns. It’s been a lot of days, this week.
Here’s what I know. We will see events differently. We will not agree. Your church will not be mine. The House of Modern Liberalism in which I proudly live and co-raise four young daughters may well not be yours and you may not accept one of its basic tenants, the very real presence of White Privilege. Our daughters will hear about that as they grow up, perhaps more than they will want to. Your good book will not be mine. It may, in fact, be my bad book. My good book may well be your bad.
Or more likely, we won’t read the same books. Two of the best and most helpful books I’ve read in the last two years have been The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why (Jabari Asim) and Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson). Together and separately, the two books clarified important things for me about the decades of my youth, about the country, state, and region I still live in, about work that remains. They also helped shape, to my mind, the best and most important chapter (“Black Guy Bald Guy,” The Massachusetts Review, Summer 2012) in the fiction sequence I’ve been working on for some time. Writing and reading about race keeps me thinking about it–as if I have any choice in America, as if I can forget the things I’ve heard folks say about one another, as if I want to or should. I don’t expect everyone to share what I see as my moral obligation. I think what I’m doing here in these Whiskey Tubs is writing to my daughters, leaving these notes, links, recommendations for living, lessons, names of books to read when they’re ready. And when they’re ready, when they’re old enough to understand it, I want them to ask themselves what it meant for Eudora Welty, after the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, her home town, to ask herself, “All right, Eudora Welty, what are you going to do about it?” I also want them to understand how privilege allowed her, gave her in fact the freedom with limited fear of death as a consequence, to answer that question the way a writer should.
Here’s what I’m going to do about it tonight. I’m going to share the voice of my good friend, novelist Bayo Ojikutu, reading a poem of mine from Overpass. We’re dedicating “American Boy” to Trayvon Martin, to his memory and to a problem that’s gone on too long. Let other folks, I’ll tell my daughters, hurry on past a problem and call it “moving forward.” Sometimes moving forward, I’ll tell them, is the worst move because it isn’t any kind of move at all. Here’s Bayo.