It’s a good thing I didn’t try to make a schedule for this project. The right poems know when to show up. I’m learning I don’t need to micromanage them.
Earlier this week, my church, West Linn Lutheran, held a service of collective mourning, which was also a re-commitment of our intentions and our resources to anti-racist work. I was asked to choose a poem to read at that service. Scanning my shelves and my memory, I realized how empty is the space where black poetry should be.
I am a white woman, and a member of the whitest Christian denomination in the United States. So this empty space is not so surprising. And that’s a shame.
So I asked around, and my goodness, there is plenty of excellent work by black poets that I might otherwise never have read.
What’s excellent, and what sticks with me personally, are two different criteria, I realize, and it’s the latter that’s the focus of The Memory Book Project. But I was grieved to realize how few chances I’d bothered to give black poets—even the excellent ones I already knew about—to stick with me personally.
The poem you heard above, by Ross Gay, was an easy choice for our service, but it’s continued to unfold beyond that moment. I knew I wanted it written on my heart.
A Small Needful Fact is devastatingly simple, but there’s a complexity to the rhythms that I’m still figuring out. I suspect that might be intentional. You’ve got to really think about what you’re saying here.
I’ve got the words down, at least, and I want to share them with you right now. They feel, themselves, needful. In this moment, yes, but more: for all the moments that are coming, when we will keep on fighting for racial justice, whether the cameras and the columns and the talking points are currently pointed at that struggle or not.
Is memorizing a poem—or reading or listening to one—an action in that fight? I think it is. “Cultural work is resistance.”
Don’t bypass that link. Are you white? Definitely don’t bypass that link. It’s a list of ways you can help support our black siblings and everyone protesting, right now and always. If you aren’t in the streets—and that’s okay; everyone’s needs and abilities and limitations and beliefs are different—you can still rise up.
I’m studying that list and studying my conscience right now. I’m studying a lot of such lists, and essays on anti-racism, and if you want some resources I will be happy to pass those on.
Meanwhile, I’m learning some new poems, and I invite you to join me. Invite the words of black poets into your life, too. Poetry opens hearts and changes minds. It gets into you and it can transform you in the best of ways. Poet David Whyte calls it “language against which you have no defenses.” Let it crack yours.
Here‘s some more information about (and poems from) Ross Gay. I also adore his recent collection of short essays, “The Book of Delights.”