Foreword: Fighting Back

Fighting Back

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray

from the straight road and woke to find myself

alone in a dark wood.

—Dante, The Divine Comedy

While temperamentally many of us imagine human lives to be stable, a simple factual recounting of what happens through time proves that they seldom are. Surprises and shocks are in store for most of us. Bruce Feiler’s new book Life is in the Transitions discusses this idea abstractly and by example from detailed interviews of hundreds of individuals. They show that fixed patterns do not work well as life predictors in such areas as jobs, health, and personal commitments. They also suggest that insofar as we need a set of presumptions about our futures, it should allow for and expect transitions—not just small alterations but big changes. I appreciate this idea because it matches my own life experiences and because it is suggested by the radical changes in understanding in most areas of knowledge, from economics and history to the hard sciences.

Feiler points out that early worldviews were based on natural and cyclical time, partly because of the prevalence of agriculture in human life. Early mythologies were seasonal, though there were exceptions that admitted to linearity or the unexpected, for example in classic religious thought and literature. The nineteenth century moved to a worldview based on mechanical time, which is regular and linear. By the early modern era, the idea of life following a circle had been replaced by a concept of its proceeding through ages or phases or stages that were essentially predictable and fixed.

Poems: Jamaica Baldwin

Forbidden

 

Let me go back to my father

in the body of my mother the day he told her,

Having black children won’t save you when the revolution comes.

Let me do more than laugh,

like she did.

 

Let me go back to my mother and do more

than roll my eyes when she tells me,

I think deep down, in a past life, I was a black blues singer.

 

My mother remembers the convent

where she worked after I was born;

the nuns who played with me while she cleaned.

 

My father remembers the bedroom window

of their first apartment; his tired body

climbing through. It was best,

 

they agreed, if she signed the lease alone.

 

Scholars conclude

the myths of violence that surround the black male

body protect the white female body

 

from harm. I conclude race was not

not a factor in my parent’s attraction.

I am the product of their curiosity, their vengeance, their need.

 

They rescued each other from stories scripted

onto their bodies. They tasted forbidden and devoured each other

whole.

 

Let me build a house

where their memories diverge.

 

Let me lick clean

these bones.

Murphy, Murphy

Murphy, Murphy

One of my names is Cece. It has many iterations. When scolded, Cecelia. At my worst, Cecelia Rose. In bed, I am named to the rhythm of my pumping fingers, Ce-Ce-Ce-Ce-Ce, I become pulse, I become breath. When I dissociate, I watch my teeth in the mirror make Cece like a snarl, I name myself until the word becomes a vacuum, until I slip in and out of it like a fist through a bangle.

In the years after my sister was abducted, I was only ever Cece Sister-to-Murphy Gowan. Murphy’s Sister Gowan. The Girl Whose Sister Disappeared. If you knew our story well, I was The One Who Slept. Sleeping Cece.

Only to Murphy, I was Sissy—for sister, for Cece. My two selves made one. “Sissy come here, Sissy I hate you, Sissy be quiet.”I hear her still.

Not All That White

Not All That White

Everyone on the raising gang notices when the journeyman connector, Joseph Bogoslavsky, reaches into his fifty-pound leather tool belt for four massive bolts and then sinks them, one by one, into the steel corner beams, his toes balancing on a two-inch ledge ninety-four floors above the street.

But no one sees him dive headfirst into thirteen hundred feet of open gray mist, his legs trailing behind him like loose streamers.

The crane operator, Butch Barlow, who had the best view of the site, contended months later in a sworn legal deposition that yes, he had seen Bogoslavsky connecting the beams, but then Butch had to look the other way to guide another eight-ton beam down to the deck under the direction of the lead connector—“Tuck, uh, what’s his name, you know, the big Indian guy. I was having a little problem with this Tuck guy,” Butch said, “on account of attitude and him signaling me I was coming in too fast, so I slowed it and laid that sucker down real gentle, like it was a feather on a baby’s ass. When I look over my shoulder, this Bogo guy was gone, so help me God.”

Way Back, Well Before My Divorce

Way Back, Well before My Divorce

There was this other thing that happened. Or really two things bundled. While visiting my then girlfriend’s older sister in New York City, I got pulled into a shell game. Then, later that night, the sister asked me to help wax her armpits.

You’ll Look Back on This and Laugh

You’ll Look Back on This and Laugh

The woman behind the bar used to smile. These days her face was shielded in a frown distinct despite the eternal woolen cap. Matt was scrupulously polite and friendly, respectful of whatever had prompted closure in a demeanor formerly open and welcoming. She lined up drinks on a thick, darkly varnished bar top streaked by beer-tap lights. The heavy stools were richly upholstered in leather. Over her shoulder, a wooden eagle on a podium addressed the high-ceilinged room with a sneer of cold command. Following the eagle’s gaze, Matt observed that the after-office crowd had thinned; the place was at its best, midevening, oddly quiet at this hour for a central London pub, a good proportion of the sparse drinkers already deep in their cups. The atmosphere was intimate, like a lock-in.

Taking the drinks back to his colleagues, Matt found the conversation had grown raucous after only one round.

Magnet Man

Magnet Man

I shift from foot to foot. Both my feet hurt. I’m packing magnets at my dad’s factory, and the rubber mats meant to cushion my joints from the floor don’t help.

A little to my left is bald-topped Tom, and a little to my right is chatty Candy, and in front of me is a concrete wall. If I go further to the left of Tom, the warehouse door opens out onto the parking lot, where my dad eats lunch in his car. I understand why he does—he’s a salesman, albeit one trained in the physics of ferrite, who draws complex equations for his clients in China—but still, he spends a lot of time on the phone: yak, yak, yak. I’d hate it: I’d rather pack, although I’m not allowed to pack the rare-earth bundles, so strong they could crush my fingers without enough cardboard between to keep their relentless attractions apart. Plus, the packing jobs I do are not always so good to start: a few broken shipments have come back in the mail, and sometimes I wonder if I ever properly learned to count. Candy shows me how to weigh the smaller pellet-magnets properly in batches, and that helps a little.

Poems: Janette Schafer

Elixir

When I was five, I discovered alcohol in abandoned red cups

scattered about the Green House, the first place we lived

in Detroit after Venezuela.

 

Dad rolled blunts on a burned-out coffee table while Mom

played with his wiry black hair. Aunt Sherry put her hand

on his knee, slid her fingers up to his zipper.

 

I went from cup to cup, from room to room

as motorcycle after motorcycle parked

in our front yard.

 

The beer, a healing bitter herb,

a toy kaleidoscope, swirl of orange, yellow,

and red in fragmented shapes

 

amid the noise of black leather

and silver chrome. I fell in a slow arc,

mother’s laughter, liquor in my ringing ears.

Poems: Ronda Piszk Broatch

I’ve Got an Asinine Affinity (Infinity?), a Clumsy Love Song

The bees of the heart weave stillness into a conversation.

String theory is smaller than the bees in the honey tin,

larger than the bats hanging from the DO NOT DISTURB

 

sign. If I wasn’t so tired, I’d rearrange my family’s lives

above the upright piano, would spring a new theory in a blue-

me world, where wandering beyond the yard sets my laughing

 

gear in motion. If only my iPhone had a zapper app

I’d deploy it at the movies, but for now I just use my keys.

Tell me about your everyday love, and I’ll tell you how

 

the worm bin is haunted, and the fact that I hid the rules

in back of the cider house, in a can of Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Sticky

sunrise, and UPS brings a broken administration all the way

 

from the America, the box intact. I miss my life, I really do.

The bees of my heart sing the Mad Girl’s Love Song

so often my quarantine has an earworm, and the rat

 

in my compost pile steals the worms. If I wasn’t so tired

I’d be detachable, capable of reliability, but that’s debatable.

In an old insane world, the able are constantly bewitched, which

 

is good, in my book. Close your eyes, pots and pans, running

water. Can’t you hear the phone ringing? The Mad Girl’s

in the Bee Box, and I’ve got a sloe-gin theory about that.

Just Nina Mae: The Struggle of an Early African American Movie Star

Just Nina Mae: The Struggle of an Early African American Movie Star

During Hollywood’s early years, tantalizing stories of discovery flourished, luring young hopefuls to the fledgling industry out west. According to movie lore, The Hollywood Reporterfounder Billy Wilkerson came across sixteen-year-old Lana Turner drinking a Coke at a soda fountain. Photographer David Conover spotted Marilyn Monroe while she was working on an airplane assembly line. And John Wayne was a prop man on John Ford’s movie set when the director made him an extra in his film. Fame and fortune for these actors soon followed.

Nina Mae McKinney’s story of discovery was no less fantastic. She left high school at sixteen to join the chorus of impresario Lew Leslie’s all-Black Broadway musical revue, Blackbirds of 1928. Hollywood directors and producers regularly raided Broadway productions for fresh, inexpensive talent to fill their stables at their California studios. After failing to sign jazz singer Ethel Waters, one of MGM’s top directors, King Vidor, was on the lookout for an extraordinary Black actress to play the title role of Chick, a singer and dancer in Hallelujah. The movie was a serious look into the lives of African Americans in the South. When he saw Blackbirds, McKinney stood out. He later recalled, “She was third from the right in the chorus. She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality.” When they met after the show, he offered her the lead, skipping the usual preliminary screen tests, acting classes, and makeovers. There is no evidence that McKinney was seeking a movie career; she had fallen in love with theater as a young girl growing up in South Carolina and trained herself as a singer and dancer, borrowing songs and choreography from the movies she saw at the local theater. In many ways, films were still inferior to Broadway, which in 1925 staged over two hundred productions; nevertheless, she accepted Vidor’s offer.