Excerpts from Arisa White’s cross-genre manuscript, dear Gerald, a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize.
I watch a housewife on TV tell how she lost her leg at six to a farm machine. She’s beautiful—looks like a horse—but in her head she’s missing a leg. Every time she talks you see the image she has of herself. You see how animal she’s become and fears she doesn’t belong. We will see it—her good foot and wonder why God allowed this to happen. Why, you were soon to come. Why, little girl I was thought you were off doing better, performing noble clichés. Why, necessary or not—waiting for your father can make you lose it.
Strangers stop me on the street and say, “You must be Denise’s daughter?” They look at me, shake their head in disbelief, and keep shaking it, as they chill out in a flashback.
I nod yes, which brings them back. For the record, I’m an inch taller than my mother and we do not have the same nose and I have a strong, small forehead—my mom likes to refer to as my horns. For a moment in time I became a unicorn; walked into a street pole, distracted by my Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone. It dropped to the curb, and a horn started rising slow and pointed from my forehead. If I knew then to cool the swelling with the cold breath the scoop left behind, I could have frozen the mention of my creature.
I’m thinking those parts may be the art of your face.
One time, on a visit to her in New Jersey from western Massachusetts where I attended graduate school, and she took a long deep look at me. In the way where she was updating her visual, taking stock of what she last saw, against what she’s seeing now. There was a moment in her observation where she got transported—I can feel in subtle ways the ways we slip away—and there was a sensation that a treasure was found, and her eyes twinkled.
“You have his hands. And your feet are his too.”
I can remember now that I pulled my hands and feet closer to me—they were betraying where I belonged.
“Your father,” she said with certainty. She was seeing you after a long time.
I was on the BART, standing against the door and a white dude came up to me, professional casual, as one gets in the Bay Area: pale blue sports jacket, hair in a contained, disheveled, chin-length shag.
First asked, “Do you play an instrument?”
This was too invasive a question for public transportation. I went into Brooklyn stance. “Why do you ask?”
“You have lovely hands,” he said. “They must play an instrument.”
He could have been a killer of women with “lovely hands.” Severed their hands, and then configured an elaborate tableau where she played the instrument he imagined her to play. Hands particularly positioned to strike a specific note. Maybe it was the sound of her last breath.
I said, “No.”
“Does anyone in your family play?”
The doors opened to his station, and your family’s hands went unanswered
Is there a flutist?
I played clarinet for a moment and was disgusted by the spit and reed (and the music programs were later cut from public schools). In my mid-twenties, for a weekend, I rocked out on a kid’s drum set. I’m most skilled at whistles and rain sticks. I wanted to sing. I’m sure you heard me belt out, from 1625 Fulton Street, on the fourth floor, into a sky as starry as it was going to get in a city: “I’m wishin’ on a star/ to follow where you are/ I’m wishin’ on a dream/ to follow what it means . . .”
“Shut the fuck up!” neighbors yelled. “You ain’t no Rose Royce!”
Trying out for glee, in 5th grade, Cat Steven’s
Morning has broken like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the world.
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight,
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning,
God’s recreation of the new day.
Morning has broken . . .
confirmed I had no control over pitch. I was crestfallen. Years later, an ex-girlfriend helped me out of my tone-deafness while we walked Eastern Parkway in autumn.
“Everyone can be taught how to sing,” she comforted.
My voice came out of these sutured bones, this skull with its distinct frequency of my mother’s high cheekbones and your elongated frame—I quickly recognized when I met your brother for the first time—these kinks’ lush pizzicato, this eyebrow’s improvisation, our noses, arrow shaped, hitting the bull’s eye; and our feet—always the question of how best to rest them.
I love lemon-pepper wings so much it makes my mouth hurt. (I give ten high-fives to Buffalo Boss for overall philosophy, and throw a deuce as exponent.) There are cravings PMS sets free and I go straight to the lemon-pepper wingette, extra fried, buried below, greasy and salty—take it to the bone. It’s true; I eat four pieces before I lick my fingers like a flute is in my hands. If a video is to come of this song, I must have a poodle in it, sniffing my air; sunset, Sanitation sucking from the ground; vixens of all orientations doing kathak to my smacking. When DMX cries for the loss of never being someone’s baby, a close-up of my teeth tearing through the crisp, vein pulled then snapped like a towel on the tender round of a player’s ass.
My mother dreamed a snake wrapped around your neck. Snakes are “dark” and “unconscious” and I’ve said sucking my thumb, besides being a denied growl, is me swallowing my tail. (Two people have choked me.) Is this mother archetype or is this cycle? So the snake vise grips your words and on your tongue fallen teeth. Incisors reveal our powerlessness. Someone is out for voice and to do what to us, if not take our breath. (First time, I’m dancing at a college party, and a chick on drugs comes out of nowhere. . . ) Without a doubt, if they put their hands on me, I’ll melt barrettes into hair, hold a bullet in my heart, put the blast through stained glass. Awe and stun. (Second time at my mother’s house, her boyfriend didn’t like that I was leaving . . . ) Transfixed, the snake solicits a stare intimate and dangerous—weakness draws our strength, our source of spine, and this is not negotiated. We didn’t ask for what is our way to be another’s poison. Let’s moult to that. But you, does it mean you speak no good? Caught struggle in your throat? And so the snake coils around the healer’s staff.
I do not know nature’s pace. Gravity re-introduced itself and it was a hell of a hill-zay. Showed me what going fast can do and so I landed on my knees. My right thumb jammed backwards. Few scrapes on my arm and when I lost my footing, I was headed toward another trail—the trail I originally wanted to be on.
I didn’t listen to the impulse to go right; the gut talked to me loud and clear and I went left, up a steeper hill. The gut said her thoughts, I climbed more, and when I looked back over my shoulder, seeing where I wanted to be—far away, I felt.
Far from the truth. I turned around and wasn’t sure how to get down, and took a few steps that automatically turned into a sprint. I couldn’t bear to fall, and speed kept picking. And slammed me prostrate.
I had on bright yellow pants. My bearings came back, I stood up, gathered the notebook and pens that flew out of my bag, water bottle—and my pants, the same color as the shirt I wore in third grade, with that kid’s footprint stamped on my chest.
A sole dirty with Brooklyn’s street life. I can’t remember why I was the one to first throw a chair. The humiliation of his footprint on my shirt and not a sweater to cover it up, hurt as bad as my knees for the next days.
I cleaned off the bloody scrapes with tea tree oil and hot water, and I didn’t even get a picturesque view. No headlands in the fog, no ocean with the sun about to fall into her mouth, no sensation of having made it, and I cried into an emptiness that was dry.
My punishment for starting the fight was to sit in front of the classroom, with my desk to the board, so close I sniffed chalk. I had to practice my cursive. The word was “ship.” I wrote it on slant and misspelled it “shit”—five times for muscle memory. I couldn’t see the misspelling until the red markings drew my attention to the ships I didn’t wright.
Two days later, the ground’s impact lives stiffs in my muscles, and reveals a rageful radiance between my breasts that is easy to ignore when going, going, going—I need my own march to keep from feeling walked on.
After this fall, I found my voice in the dust of everyone else’s tracks. I said, “fuck,” soft enough to not disturb my shame.
Five days later, in the sheepskin slippers my wife got me, the earth’s introduction is cushioned. I approach two deer in the dark and watch them eat grass. One traipses off and the other stays. We share a generous stare. I want to say it was forty-five minutes. Its gaze unlocked me from my machines. My heart had no cage.
The field is emptied of light, and sounds I’ve been taught to fear are doing their living. I feel missing, 64,000 times over, and no one notices the tessitura I leave behind.
He kicked me where the sun does shine. My shirt’s color was a pledge to my solar plexus. He put his foot all in my chakra—right between my family jewels. This deer is gentleness.
Each morning I give thanks for these knees, for my body that continues on the daily, to a thumb, not quick to sign “like.” I’m injured and have shifted into slower action—not tortoise or slug, but chill. Momentum from the absolute start of the wave—the darkness of its conception, not when it crashes to shore.
I can no longer deny the need. If I do, that’s how missing begins—attention on so many things, you show up in fractions, then divisions, and no one ever sees you. It’s a challenge to give and receive love when there’s first a maze that bobs and weaves itself a new style whenever it feels.
I’m sensitive about my ship. Fog takes presence in my bruises. Wind leaves its bubble wrap and joints pop. The deer is still here and I listen to myself in this quiet. I do not need to possess everything. Tonight, I return my back to my body. Say goodnight and wave “thank you” for seeing me to my door.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of the chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon—which she is adapting into an opera—as well as the full-length collections Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. Member of the PlayGround writers’ pool, her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival. One of the founding editors of HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Arisa has received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, an advisory board member for Flying Object, and a BFA faculty member at Goddard College; her poetry has been widely published and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet. Arisa is a native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her wife. arisawhite.com
dear Gerald, is a collection of epistolary poems and prose, addressed to my father, which I started two years ago when my mother asked if I wanted to write to him in Guyana. He was deported to his homeland several years prior for involvement in a criminal case, and the last time I saw him I was three years old. With funding from the Center for Cultural Innovation in Los Angeles, I took a trip to Guyana in February 2015, reconnected with my father, after 30-plus years of abandonment, and gave him a copy of this manuscript. To learn more about the dear Gerald project visit atoguyana.wordpress.com.