Dear L

I have come to know you through your many stories,

and as I close my eyes, I envision your experiences

as prophecy, blood soaked rice paddies, washed away

by monsoon rain. Then war comes again. And fresh blood

runs through crimson streams anew. I have respected you

from the outset, yet at times I think you’ve taken mysticism

too far. However, I have only become world-wary abstractly,

and can count the number of dead bodies

I’ve seen in the flesh on one hand, unlike you. Some people

are possessed with an unhealthy obsession of death,

and in the process forget about life. You’ve taught me

that the two are intertwined, and even though you’ve witnessed the unspeakable,

you still somehow find the lost grain of hope in any dire situation.

I want to thank you for your sable hand of guidance,

always grasping an ebony cane crafted in the cradle of humanity, Africa,

the continent whose descendants you have taught me more about than anyone else.

I am grateful.

“Walk in Beauty” and endure.

-your loving friend,

sw

Numbers in the Air (first draft)

[Scene 1] –Interior, inner city, early twentieth century run-down brick building. Empty except for one patron, a young man whose dirty yet clean shaven face makes it look like he is ambivalent about his appearance. He’s slumped over on a stool, conscious, but barely. The lighting is dim; there is a clock on the back wall with frozen hands. There is also what must used to have been a small wooden bar along the back wall, but it looks empty of alcohol with apparently no one tending it. The young man, Patrick, straightens up and starts to hum vaguely.

Patrick- Ahh, the early afternoon light creeps in through rust covered bars behind ancient stained glass, but it’s not the rich man’s or religious kind. What are these shadows that form the shapes of Argive spears on a broken linoleum floor? Are they symbols? Revelations? Prophecies of imminent violence?

Patrick starts to look around the room slowly at first, but then begins to twirl in circles on his stool. His uncle walks in from behind the bar and leans against it, staring beyond Patrick in a tired, expressionless manner. 

Arnold- It’s your imagination.

Patrick- Everything is imagined Arnie-

Arnold- How about you give me some respect for once or I’ll throw you out of here and send you back to your reptile of a mother.

Patrick feigns getting up and leaving by zipping up his dirty bag.

Patrick- Alright, fine. Kick out your only customer Arnie. Your own flesh and blood!

Patrick laughs to himself. Arnold remains stoic, takes out two shot glasses, and pours a brownish liquid in them from an un-labelled bottle. The two stare at each other for a few seconds.

Arnold- Patrick, do you realize what’s going on out there?

They both simultaneously take shots. Patrick retains his light-hearted humor, but with a genuine, passionate intensity. Arnold is weary, and it’s obvious that the two have had this conversation many times before.

Patrick- I can handle myself on the streets uncle, you know that.

Arnold- No, I mean beyond the streets.

Patrick- What do you know about the outside world? We’ve been disconnected for months.

Arnold- Why do you think there’ve been no travelers through here? We’re cut off, and not just digitally. You have to be more careful Patrick. You hear me? Don’t associate yourself with them anymore.

Patrick- You act like you’re my father or something when we’re practically the same age. Besides, if it wasn’t for them, this place would’ve been burnt to the ground along with most of the other buildings on this block.

Arnold- Your friends can’t protect you forever. The riots might be over, but it’s still dangerous out there.

Patrick- You call those riots? That was revolution, uncle, and if you’re so disillusioned as to believe that we can’t create something better out of it, then what’s the point of going on and living at all anyway?

Arnold shakes his head and pours two more shots. They drink.

Arnold- The same as it ever was. This isn’t a post-anything situation Patrick. The government will be back. We’re just quarantined, and when the time comes everything that you and your friends have built will… Oh, it’s no use.

Patrick- You’re right Arnie. No use in pessimism when the world as you know it has changed irreparably, and for the better.

Arnold- Right. All that Krokodil makes this city such a better place.

Patrick gives Arnold a knowing smirk. 

Patrick- I better get going, let me get a smoke and a shot before I start patrol. When I get to the river I’ll let Bran know you need help with fixing this floor.

The uncle provides his nephew with what he asked for, then sits down and takes out a small, torn book, but looks up right before Patrick exits.

Arnold- Watch out for the fiends.

End of first scene.

Locating Dislocation

There is a problem with contemporary poetry, a problem that intrinsically stems from the issue of bewilderment. Poets and humans in general, don’t just feel lost, but disconnected from the world by being fractured in time and space. I understand and can relate to the idea of bewilderment, or the status that is prevalent in contemporary, (some would say post-modern) poetry, of being in relation to awareness of the Other. This quest is a vicious cycle. Searching for what cannot be found through words or even reality leads to confusion and the debasement of poetry itself. I believe that poetry needs a mast, one which will inherently guide the boat of the mind by the winds of emotion and thought. This is in contrast to the trend of scattered bursts of a faulty mechanical propeller. Poetry can be natural without having to be confined to the constraints of nature.

Poetry is inherently personal. This is even if the poem is detached, even if the voice is third-person omnipresent. The problem of being everywhere and every-when at once is one that Fanny Howe analyzes in her poetic and philosophical essay entitled Bewilderment. In introducing her poetics to the reader, Howe begins to explain how the characters in her fiction make her feel, as beings completely apart from her own construct and mind. Howe relates this concept to her poetry as well, and claims that the relation correlates in that she has to confront the same problem in expressing her thoughts on reality through the words she writes on the page. “I would have to say that something like the wave and the particle theories troubled the poetics of my pages: how can two people be in two places simultaneously and is there any relationship between imagination and character?” Howe reconciles this problem for herself by ending her essay with an oxymoron exclaiming that art is supposed to prove that life is worth living by expressing that it isn’t. Fanny Howe’s quest ends in a full, bloody circle.

However, poetry doesn’t have to be cyclical in order for it to stretch the limitations of conventional thought. Writing is an interpretation of life. And even though life in the 21st century is fragmentary and deterritorialized by the digitalization of even the most mundane aspects of life, (think checking your smartphone for the weather before going outside instead of looking at an analog thermometer, or even physically going outdoors to feel the temperature) the poet mustn’t succumb to the current poetic trend of expressing their perception of the world through detached mechanical incoherence. Yes, using technology may seem more accurate, and reporting on different perspectives of characters is difficult when not being able to convey multiple existences simultaneously, but attempting to express the ontologically inexpressible too often results in contradiction, and ultimately nihilism. This is what Fanny Howe does in Bewilderment.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi approaches bewilderment differently in her poem, Late Twentieth Century in the Form of Litany. This poet confronts the fragmentation of expression in a seemingly cyclical sense, because of her repetition of “I thought I heard voices.” Calvocoressi even ends her poem with the line “Over and Over I thought I heard voices”, which could be construed as a form of admission to mechanical detachment. And yet there is a clear progression in this litany that leads the reader from thinking about the character’s possible auditory hallucinations to knowing the voice’s source when the poet breaks from repetition. “Mother took all the pills and I looked at the clock.” Through this line alone, Calvocoressi locates the source of bewilderment.

Poetry, History, and Prophecy

Lamont Steptoe’s work has been featured in dozens of anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.

Lamont Steptoe’s work has been featured in dozens of anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.

(This article originally appeared in The Gleaner.)

“They now call this place out if its name / After one of their own who trafficked in human flesh”

Philadelphia’s Congo Square lies a block away from the most historic building in America, Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers boldly began their rebellion against the British Empire. The park, more commonly known as Washington Square, is advertised as a somber burial ground for Revolutionary War soldiers, Continental and British alike. However, thousands more buried in the square remain overlooked, including slaves, free blacks, Catholics, and victims of various epidemics. The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, the centerpiece monument of the park, marginalizes the unmarked graves of the oppressed by barely mentioning their presence underneath. This is in spite of the fact that the square had been a “stranger’s burial ground” (and consequently a gathering place for what Steptoe affectionately calls saltwater Africans) for almost a century before the Revolutionary War began. Through “Meditations in Congo Square” American Book Award Winner and Pew Fellow poet, Lamont B. Steptoe, undertakes the daunting task of providing a voice for disregarded human beings buried in the dregs of American history.

Steptoe’s poetry uses meditation and spiritual creativity in order to shed light on the everyday life of not only his African ancestors, but also everyone else buried in Congo Square, including, “…the hearts brains and bones [of soldiers]…” and “the corpses felled by plague.” The underworld of Philadelphia’s hidden history comes alive from the very first line of Steptoe’s book, when he proclaims, “I dance with the ghosts of Congo Square / Meet and marry what isn’t there.” Readers come to understand that writing Meditations in Congo Square was no mere pet project for Steptoe, as the poet mentions in the book’s introduction that his three days a week meditation schedule on the burial ground lasted for a period of five years. Each poem in the collection conveys the poet’s psychological descent into an otherworldly realm, while managing to guide the reader along with him much like Virgil did for Dante in Inferno. Throughout the book the poet digs deeper and deeper into the square’s sacred grounds until his voice ultimately becomes one with the departed, culminating with the collection’s final poem, Untold Stories, in which Steptoe calls for the whispers of the forgotten dead to be “…loud enough to enter history’s ears!”

Reading Meditations in Congo Square is not a front to back cover endeavor, as many of the poems in this short book can easily stand on their own. This is because Steptoe’s “Meditations…” functions not only as a testament to colonial people’s history, but also often as a warning against war and oppression in the present and the future.

Steptoe’s ability to translate the humdrum of an average day into existential prophecy is frankly impressive, “…we are snowflakes falling on a / summer day vanishing in air while the unborn await their turn / to imagine our lives we are empty vessels dreaming of fullness.” In another poem Steptoe muses that when he was young he never would have thought the subject of weather would be a topic of conversation for him, let alone a metaphor for the transcendence of physical to spiritual. In this respect, Steptoe refers to the path of tropical storms originating in West Africa and crossing the Atlantic, the same route that saltwater Africans were forced to take. In No Name Worthy to Claim Steptoe speaks for a dead African joyous of being able to journey back home across the Atlantic, “I rushed across waves and plowed through storms / I entered the tabernacle of my youth.” Altogether, Steptoe’s Meditations… focuses on balancing historical and contemporary forms of life and death in Congo Square, and his unique method of meditative writing transforms the mundane into something spectacular.

(Steptoe recently read on campus in support of Rutgers Camden professor Ewuare Osayande’s anthology Stand Our Ground and stated that it is important for Meditations in Congo Square to be made available everywhere. The book is currently on sale at La Unique bookstore on 6th and Market in Camden, and the Penn Book Center on 34th and Sansom in Philadelphia.)

Precarious Everything

Feeling no wind

flames flicker

in palpable air

 

addiction

intransigence

take risks again

 

painful longing for days

taken for granted

 

Will this moment in time

be romanticized?

Surely not.

 

abstract serenity until silence

is broken by the roar of jet engines.

 

Backyard Genocide

-over one hundred tadpoles in a broken pool.

-what will happen when they grow legs?

Will it be the ten plagues all over again?

This star is shrugging off rays of light now shining

on this roof, but only for a little while.

 

While my heart strings spread

each root will overtake me,

and all of these thoughts

will be for naught.