Lately I keep thinking about Richard Blanco’s profound and moving poem “Easy Lynching on Herndon Avenue.” It describes his response to a present-day photo of the quiet, leafy street in Mobile, Alabama where, on March 21, 1981, Michael Donald, a 19-year-old African American, was chased down by neighbors while walking home. They strangled him, slit his throat, and hanged his body from a tree. “Why?” Blanco asks. “How could they?”
Nearly 40 years later, the murders are different in detail but similar in substance: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin shot by a neighbor while on his way home from a convenience store; 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson, shot by police through the window of her home while she was playing video games with her nephew; 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, chased down and shot by town residents while jogging near his home; and Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd… and just this weekend, we learned of two deaths by hanging--suicide, or murder?--of young African American men, Malcolm Harsch and Robert Fuller, fifty miles apart in southern California. And here we are, still asking the same questions, along with disturbing new ones, like the question left at the George Floyd memorial on the village green in Camden, Maine, last week: "How many weren't filmed?"
Why has so little changed in 40 years? Perhaps because, as Blanco explains, it has been easy for us to refuse to “make ourselves imagine” such hatred. If we can keep it “invisible,” we can go about our day-to-day lives without having to summon the courage “to look hard and deep and long enough.”
What would it mean to look that hard, deep, and long? I can't answer the question for anyone else, and I'm not even sure what my own answer is. All I know is that I must try. Last week, a dear friend and I agreed to begin to educate ourselves—together—by reading works by African American authors. We started with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Next up is Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s a first step. May the journey continue—for all of us—for however long it takes until we “look hard and deep and long enough” to finally see.
For me, spring is a season of ghosts. My brother Andrew’s birthday is April 10th. He died of cancer at age 38. My sister Angelica’s birthday is May 9th. She died of cancer at age 54. My brother Brian’s birthday is June 7th. He died of cancer at age 55. I suppose I should go back and begin the list with my mother, who was born on March 22nd, but she died of heart failure at age 85, and although I miss her, the pain of my siblings’ deaths is more mysterious and pervasive, coloring every moment of my own life. I explored this endurance of grief in a poem I wrote two years ago, called “Snow and Oranges.” It was published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Frost Meadow Review.
Snow and Oranges
by Laura Bonazzoli
We go on.
We talk of weather
and the price of oranges
the shops closing for winter
the long nights of December.
We go to work
to a concert. On the road
home we stop and watch
the moonlight climb
or can’t forget
that we are tasting oranges
you must have tasted once
or walking a crystal-jeweled hill
you must once have walked. Either
way we go on
for decades chasing
The moon on snow tonight
is not bright enough
to keep you from our eyes
nor the scent of these oranges
the earth of you
I recently finished reading Maine author Jodi Paloni’s collection of linked short stories called They Could Live with Themselves (Press 53, 2016). Set in the fictional town of Stark Run, Vermont, the stories recount quiet yet significant incidents in the lives of its residents: a little girl who, when her grieving mother lashes out at her, returns alone to the scene of her brother’s death; the manager of a general store who overcomes her anxiety to help a stranger; or a young man who decides to leave his girlfriend, his parents, and the only home he’s ever known, to pursue his dreams. As we move through each story, witnessing the characters’ interactions and thoughts, we gradually discover that many are family members, neighbors, or former lovers. And yet, strangely for residents of a small New England town, they are all fundamentally alone, seeking an always elusive connection to nature, art, meaning… and each other. Fans of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge will enjoy They Could Live with Themselves. I recommend it highly.
As our nation becomes ever more polarized, I'm finding comfort in a poem by Robert Frost, "Choose Something Like a Star." First published in 1943, the poem begins with the poet imploring the star to "Say something to us we can learn/By heart..." But all the star reveals is, "I burn." The poet asks for more. Still, the star remains silent until, at last, it asks something of us, its viewers on Earth: Rather than allowing ourselves to be "swayed" by passion to idolatry or brutality, it asks that we "choose something like a star/To stay our minds on and be staid."
Too often, we allow ourselves to obsess on the latest news, the latest outrage to the ideas and alliances to which we claim affinity. To stay our minds on a star means to hold to more lasting truths--our common humanity and mortality in the face of an indifferent universe--and to dedicate our thoughts, speech, and actions to working together to foster harmony in our spheres of influence. So tonight, set aside a moment to silence the news. Go outside, breathe deeply, and contemplate a star.
(Photo of "Stars in the Night Sky" by George Hodan is in the public domain. Thank you, George, for sharing your beautiful image. "Choose Something Like a Star" is from Robert Frost's collection Come In and Other Poems, published in 1943.)
One of my favorite novels is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I happened to be rereading when news broke of her death at age 88 (on August 5, 2019). Here is an excerpt from the lecture she gave when she won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1993. For all writers of fiction and narrative poetry—beginners through published authors—it seems especially inspiring:
“Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow.
We know you can never do it properly – once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try.”
Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1993