sweet honey in the rock –the poetry of family
I make space on my desk to set down a jar of drinking water. The morning has barely entered the room. Frankincense oil perfumes the air as I begin my work. In the window I see the bougainvillea is withering. I go outside in sleepwear to give it my drinking water. I return to the desk, to the frankincense. I am unsettled but I write anyway.
I turn difficulty into poetry, into sweet honey in the rock. The words seep over troubling consequences, including longing to live in a cave. An escape of sorts — not the kind that is void of responsibility. But an escape in which sensibility clearly says to run from the danger of concrete, run from being imposed upon, from being hunted down by random craziness, from witnessing the premature deaths of our souls. Looking back on all that has been diminished in life, I see ruins. The ruins call for poetry that recovers dreams and mends cracked things.
The thirst for life is a constant. Literally, life waits for snow to accumulate on the mountains, and the prayers of elders on the pueblos and mesas, to draw down the waters into our mouths. And all of this is done silently — not a harmful silence perfected as some kind of spiritual path — but a silence that creates snow, that brings salvation, that inspires peace to present itself.
I was a silent child. And a silent child needing salvation stops waiting for a mothership from space to come fly her and her people to another planet. She sits silent with what is in front of her — the two trees in her backyard. The orange hats on the bird of paradise induce a smile. A frequent song from red-breasted robins and the tweeting of other birds enhances the quiet in the middle of the city. Memories of the ocean’s voice soothe her fear of riots, her mother’s wrath, and other disturbances in life.
My family are all quiet beings. For salvation from the pain of our blackness, we move into our inner worlds, away from loud and random acts of disrespect. Society is problematic. Some black folks cry, some yell, some numb themselves and others, like my family, go quietly into an inner world searching for what could save them. We took flight from the world of confusing politics and slipped into the mystical state of being where you observe life. We became contemplatives without meaning to. We dared to sit still on the vast earth despite despair. We dared to be reflective at the expense of appearing passive. But contemplation does not always bring peace.
We did not know what went on in each other’s lives unless shared. And when it was shared it was about something that happened days or weeks ago. A look into each other’s eyes was to see if life was going well or not. Anger and hurt were clear to see. Anger froze the air. Hurt clashed with privacy. If either hurt or anger endured, fresh days spoiled at once.
My family attempted to keep up with the fast-moving pace of Los Angeles. The corners stained with struggle marked the edges. For a black family it felt dangerous to take time away from the difficulties and sit silently, sift through ideas, rage, and disappointment. If we were not speaking then who was speaking? If we were not shouting then who would shout for us? To do nothing, to have time away, felt dangerous. So, we dared to be silent.
If we were not silent the next best thing was to play music so that contemplation fit our lives. Music squeezed into the spaces. Songs from church, and with my help, rhythm and blues came into our house of silence. I whistled along with Otis Redding’s song, Dock of the Bay, a song that seeped into me without noticing it. I didn’t know I was whistling until my mother said, in the middle of my meditation, that whistling was not lady-like. Imagining a Bay of water and a boat, I was not whistling. I was calling in peace. And the girl was no lady. I was a child. A quiet child.
Alongside French provincial furniture and a sofa encased in protective plastic, dancing to music felt like freedom. Every step absorbed from the feet of other teenagers- — until the spontaneous music of jazz interrupted the sound of rhythm and blues. The scales of the trumpet, piano, scatting, the saxophone all ran downhill to a resting place where you could hold, hold, hold, and then let go, let go of suffering. A deep sigh indicated settling on the last note and landing in nirvana right in the middle of chaos.
By sixteen several large packing boxes filled with my poems were stashed to the back of the closet. Each word a private gem, only for that alone time of sitting, writing or re-reading the words that called for silence. At night the poetry lingered and often spoke through the closet door. By day, the silence spoke to me and I could hardly write in the midst of what I was feeling.
Once I am sitting in my high school English Literature class, daydreaming, waiting for the teacher to say anything that meant something to the hatred surrounding the late 60’s. The teacher says, “Class I want you to hear this poem.” Oh no, is it Shakespeare again? I and the other students twist around in their chairs moving with great agitation. Can we move enough to stop the teacher from reading Shakespeare, Keats, or Kant? He begins to read a poem in Old English, Ode to Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is my poem, my first ode, a song, coming from the silence of assassination. The words on the teacher’s lips pause each breath. He turns to me. He says. “How did you come to write such a beautiful poem?”
“I don’t know.” The words can’t be explained. In fact, they are not words. It is not writing. It is an exhale gathered and dusted on the page. It is collective black tragedy written in lieu of beloved trees, flowers, and the ocean the other students write about.
“Is there anything else you would like to say about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life?” The teacher asks. I shake my head. Breathless. The poem was a private moment of pain scrawled out in pencil. I had written down my weeping.
From Upcoimng book: The Deepest Peace: Contemplations From a Season of Stillness by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel – Coming from Parallax Press – Fall 2020