This past summer, I spent my second time in Tulum, Tankah Bay. Staring into the sea, body absorbing sun, inhaling salt air, my feet buried and unburied in sand. I now look for these elements in poems.
Where is the earth? Air? Fire? Where is the poem’s water? Together they must ether a poem that suffuses the reader.
(Whenever we look at anything in fragments, we think that will help us reproduce it; but the poem, at any given moment, requires different balances of these elements. This is the script for any ecosystem.)
I’m not looking for the elements in a literal sense, but the earth as structure and container; the air as the logic of the poem; the gravitas and passion—that thing that pulls us to care and read on is fire; and the water as memory. Personal and collective (re)membering.
It is a water body, a poem that wishes to recall and respond.
Anissa Janine Wardi, citing Robert Lawrence France in her book Water and African American Memory, writes that “Since ‘water is not a renewable resource,’ it follows that ‘every molecule of every droplet of water in existence today has always been [here], recording all acts upon the globe” (9).
A poem worth its water accounts for_________. It whets our whatnots and Dixies, don’t shy from bayous, themgroves, can seduce a maroon from inland to shore.
We put so much of our minerals into our writing. We are leaving our belongings so we can return. Milk blood semen urine sweat saliva tears. I sometimes dare myself to lick the poem to sample the crystals, love and gratitude—all that funk we Calgon away.
My student Hernan wonders, how to make a poem dance. To that, I question, how to make a poem ocean. Make it puddle. Make it wetlands. Make it rain. Does the poem come down in Benjamins or Washingtons? Is it true, sixty percent of the time, the poem washes you?
We beseech for the rain. This is when a poem dances and get wet. We show our moves, remember the curve in our spine, our aquatic brethren. Throw up pulses, however we amplify the beat, everywhere—felt. Show dirt, match, and breath—all our in-and-out and around again. When a poem turns up drought, how thirsty you got to be to doo-wop?
I live below sea level and still it’s dry. We don’t want it too dry. We don’t want it to break up in our mouths and take moisture from our taste. An unleavened wafer we want to say is a body but the crisp is unnatural. It’s ungodly not to be supple.
Northern California is on fire. The fires are wild because if it’s not coming from your lighter or stove, it knows nothing about tame. It doesn’t fear water; it doesn’t fear a soak. What is a poem that is burning, that doesn’t have an inch of water to save its life?
They say, the rappers say, spit your rhyme. Will you give your spit to the line? Your salt, your wounds, a scab remains, a record.
After a long journey, a glass of water is offered to the traveler. It is a way to welcome, to say, Sit and be here awhile. Here, because getting here cost you your water. She gives you a glass, condensation started, ice cubes clinking and buoyant, an energy of words. That goes down electronic, indefinite, without preposition, no punctuation. She sees you’ve been refreshed.
When your Aunt asks, “Where you’re from, child?” The poem stirring up eddies in her hands, you say, “Where memory crystallizes and secretes itself as a particular historical moment” (Wardi 6).
My friend Goodman tells me, in the three minutes I spare to chat, on my way to the class I’m instructing that begins at suppertime, that he almost died. Him and I, shots and cocktails, drink like fish to get back to our pre-born days. A wave took him into its arms and he went under. How many waters has he crossed to know something new? He can’t help himself. In the Pacific’s stronghold, he thought of two poems. These two poems, he says, saved his life. Goodman tells me—each word a brick in this memorial—keep writing.
“So I gotta make the song cry,” Jay-Z admits in recitative. There are three kinds of tears. Basal tears are the continuous tears that lubricate our eyeballs; reflex tears are produced when we chop onions or get poked in the eye; and psychic tears are those caused by, and communicating, specific emotional states (Wardi 9). Jay’s song will do what the body is socialized not to do and this gesture, like whipping your hair back and forth, is a speech act. Oily and protein rich, the poem must plait a holy trinity of tears into a French braid.
Although, the surface of a poem is reflective, “when we consider water’s molecular makeup, we see that it is capable of displaying a vast array of expressions” (Emoto 2).
You can face-beat a poem until it’s haiku, yet to be bottled. We drink, too, its containment. Along with hydration, the feeling we cannot move. We are held in this volume. Turgid, you feel stacked on a shelf, jostled and what a sigh of relief when the cap comes off. The touch of freer vibes. What would it mean to have the river in us, to have our poems know that they are moving toward a wider embrace?
On writing, I’m floating on the Caribbean Sea. Life jacket on, arms legs splayed in multiplication, I’ve fallen from stardust and why get up. Every each inch of waves on me, hold me. Rays loving me. This touch like this, one and only. Makes us bob, poem please ripple, leave us feeling centered and spoke.
Water and African American Memory: An Ecocritical Perspective, Anissa Janine Wardi
The Miracle of Water, Masaru Emoto
Cave Canem graduate fellow Arisa White [photo credit: Nye' Lyn Tho] received her MFA from UMass, Amherst, and is the author of Black Pearl, Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. Her recent collection You’re the Most Beautiful Thing that Happened was a nominee for the 29th Lambda Literary Award and the chapbook “Fishing Walking” and Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife won Daniel Handler’s inaugural Per Diem Poetry Prize. As the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, Arisa curates cultural events and artistic collaborations that center narratives of queer people of color. She serves on the board of directors for Nomadic Press and is a faculty advisor at Goddard College. arisawhite.com