by Mara Jebsen
In 2006, when I had finished my MFA; when I had completed a poetry class with a famous professor I worshipped; when I had absorbed the fact that despite my increasingly panicky efforts to write a true good poem I had not only not been anointed but had not even been remarkable within the small class, I shut down completely. This shutting-down lasted almost a year, and it seemed to signal some real weakness of character. A real writer would not stop writing just because she had not been chosen by a professor. A real writer would just write.
But I didn't. Then, slowly, I did, but with a strange tic. I had to draw a line down the center of a page so that it was made of two columns. In the thin columns I could write strange little stories in the voice of someone like myself. They were emphatically not poems because I could no longer write poems. But they had to stop at the line, and so they were not exactly stories, either. I filled several notebooks with these little things, all the while still worrying that I was not writing, because I did not think I was writing. The pieces–I don't know what to call them–seem to me to be written by a woman named Lita. Lita has since become a minor character in a play I am writing about ex-patriot family businesses in West Africa. At some point in the play, she throws away her manuscript. It falls into the audience. Here is one of the pieces that falls.
In Which I Try to Tell A Frenchman What It Is Like To Grow Up Here
We lived near the ocean,
But it meant very little.
Almost Nothing appeared on the horizon
That thing just sliced
Your dreams crossways. Did you know, Alexandre
It’s the only straight line in nature, besides
The plumb line? I’ve heard
They credit geometry to sea-side peoples
Because of a circle’s enormous joke . . .
The rest of the world is a dance
Is a series of arabesques,
And who would have guessed
At the use of straight lines,
That they’d behave
So predictably and that the earth
Would fall under the sway of men
Enthralled by a magical stickish order?
I mean, Alexandre, the numbers men, the enlightement ones
Who drew our national borders. . .
Build and kill and tally
One banana 2 kilos coffee, I saw
Three ships come sailing in. . .
Which men? You grandfather, Alexandre
And mine. . .
On Sundays my family walked by the ocean
One black man, one white woman
One brown child, and me
I’d wish the ocean would split
Like they said in the Bible.
We could pile right out of the country together
Us and our cousins and aunties and the elders
Barefoot on avenues made of holy sea-bed:
Seashells, colonial bones, slave-dust and shark blood.
We’d walk for Deliverance. Exodus. Either sense.
Us, we’d cry, from
The monotony of our heartsick twilights.
Our perfect oranges rotting on high boughs.
Deliver. . .
And there were deliveries.
Occasional ships, lumbering
Iron creatures, bearing Sardine
Tins from Europe. Dutch-made powdered
Milk. Our coffee gone chipped and sold
Back to us by Nestle. Our evening stews
Flavoured with beef bits and salty chemicals
Arriving on slow night ships
From other, shinier places . . .
You ask, did our bloods run any differently because
Of foreign-bought liquors and salts?
Is still don’t know, I know only
If Papa had not
Had to whisper political hopes and terrors
In closed courtyards,
And the nights not been crossed
With bored and stupid young military men
He might not have been so made of iron,
I might’ve Gone out, I might
Have worn clothes fresh like the 90’s,
Danced to Shabba Ranx with a nice fine boy. It
Was all of a piece, When I say
“All of a piece” I mean
We often woke in the morning
To news of new forms of political terror
Crackling from black radios over our breakfasts,
And when I washed myself
From a yellow plastic bucket I saw
The specter of the fat man of the photographs
His dictator-face dictating dustily from
Sad post-offices and banks
Oh he was stuffed with something, that magic
I’d run a washcloth along an armpit with hairs
Just starting to show, and think how’d I cut him
Clean in two, until French-bought fiberglass
Surged and fluffed out from his chest
And the puppet-marbles of his eyes
Clattered the floor. I wasn’t
Alone. What I mean by “all of a piece” is
On a bad day back then
Young girls considered murder, even
As they bathed.