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Join us as we welcome John Murillo & Tyehimba Jess in a program guest curated by Nick Demske.
John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie, finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award. His honors include a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. He teaches at Hampshire College and New York University.
Tyehimba Jess is the author of Leadbelly, winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Olio (Wave Books, 2016) has been called "Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant..." by Publisher's Weekly. A Cave Canem and NYU Alumni, Jess received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000 – 2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference. Jess is Poetry and Fiction Editor of African American Review and Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island.
Guest curator Nick Demske lives in Racine and is a children's librarian at the Racine Public Library. He is the author of a self-titled book which was chosen by Joyelle McSweeney for the 2010 Fence Modern Poets Series prize. He is also the author of a chapbook called "Skeetly Deetly Deet" (Strange Cage Press, 2012). Nick was featured in 2011 as one of fifteen emerging poets to watch for by Poets and Writers magazine andhis book was chosen as one of the 10 Best Books of Poetry in 2010 by a Believer Magazine reader survey. He is a member of the Racine/Kenosha Poets Laureate Commission, as well at the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. For the past 7 years, Nick has curated the BONK! poetry and music series in Racine, which is like winning the lottery every month. He loves the crap out of Woodland Pattern.
Blind Boone's Vision
When I got old enough
I asked my mother,
to her surprise,
to tell me what she did
with my eyes. She balked
and stalled, sounding
unsure for the first time
I could remember.
It was the tender way
she held my face
and kissed where tears
should have rolled
that told me I’d asked
of her the almost impossible—
to recount my blinding
tale, to tell what became
of the rest of me.
She took me by the hand
and led me to a small
sapling that stood not
much taller than me.
I could smell the green
marrow of its promise
reaching free of the soil
like a song from Earth’s
royal, dirty mouth.
Then Mother told me
how she, newly freed,
had prayed like a slave
through the night when
the surgeon took my eyes
to save my fevered life,
then got off her knees
come morning to take
the severed parts of me
for burial—right there
beneath that small tree.
They fed the roots,
climbed through its leaves
to soak in sunlight . . .
and so, she told me,
I can see.
When the wind rustles
up and cools me down,
when the earth shakes
with footsteps and when
the sound of birdcalls
stirs forests like the black
and white bustling
’neath my fingertips
I am of the light and shade
of my tree. Now,
ask me how tall
that tree of mine
has grown to be
after all this time—
it touches a place
between heaven and here.
And I shudder when I hear
the earth’s wind
in my bones
through the bones
of that boxed-up
swarm of wood,
bird and bee:
I let it loose . . .
—Tyehimba Jess, from OLIO (Wave Books, 2016)
Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,
I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,
late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this—the one
bird frantic, attacking I thought, the way she swooped
down, circled my head, and flailed her wings in my face;
how she seemed to scream each time I swung; how she
dashed back and forth between me and a blood-red Corolla
parked near the opposite curb; how, finally, I understood:
I spied another bird, also calling, his foot inexplicably
caught in the car’s closed door, beating his whole bird
body against it. Trying, it appeared, to bang himself free.
And who knows how long he’d been there, flailing. Who
knows—he and the other I mistook, at first, for a bat.
They called to me—something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer—to do something,
anything. And, like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,
on my way home from another heartbreak. Call it 1997,
and say I’m several thousand miles from home. By which
I mean those were the days I made of everyone a love song.
By which I mean I was lonely and unrequited. But that’s
not quite it either. Truth is, I did manage to find a few
to love me, but couldn’t always love them back. The Rasta
law professor. The firefighter’s wife. The burlesque dancer
whose daughter blackened drawings with m’s to mean
the sky was full of birds the day her daddy died. I think
his widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.
Anyway, I’m digressing. But if you asked that night—
did I mention it was night?—why I didn’t even try
to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I couldn’t say,
truthfully, that it had anything to do with envy, with wanting
a woman to plead as deeply for me as these sparrows did,
one for the other. No. I’d have said something, instead,
about the neighborhood itself, the car thief shot a block
and a half east the week before. Or about the men
I came across nights prior, sweat-slicked and shirtless,
grappling in the middle of the street, the larger one’s chest
pressed to the back of the smaller, bruised and bleeding
both. I know you thought this was about birds,
but stay with me. I left them both in the street—
the same street where I’d leave the sparrows—the men
embracing and, for all one knows (especially one not
from around there), they could have been lovers—
the one whispering an old, old, tune into the ear
of the other—Baby, baby, don’t leave me this way. I left
the men where I’d leave the sparrows and their song.
And as I walked away, I heard one of the men call to me,
please or help or brother or some such. And I didn’t break
stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.
Let me try this another way. Call it 1977. And say
I’m back west, south central Los Angeles. My mother
and father at it again. But this time in the street,
broad day light, and all the neighbors watching. One,
I think his name was Sonny, runs out from his duplex
to pull my father off. You see where I’m going with this.
My mother crying out, fragile as a sparrow. Sonny
fighting my father, fragile as a sparrow. And me,
years later, trying to get it all down. As much for you—
I’m saying—as for me. Sonny catches a left, lies flat
on his back, blood starting to pool and his own
wife wailing. My mother wailing, and traffic backed,
now, half a block. Horns, whistles, and soon sirens.
1977. Summer. And all the trees full of birds. Hundreds,
I swear. And since I’m the one writing it, I’ll tell you
they were crying. Which brings me back to Dolphy
and his transcribing. The jazzman, I think, wanted only
to get it down pure. To get it down exact—the animal
wracking itself against a car’s steel door, the animals
in the trees reporting, the animals we make of ourselves
and one another. Flailing, failing. Stay with me now.
Days after the dustup, my parents took me to the park.
And in this park was a pond, and in this pond were birds.
Not sparrows, but swans. And my father spread a blanket
and brought from a basket some apples and a paring knife.
Summertime. My mother wore sunglasses. And long sleeves.
My father, now sober, cursed himself for leaving the radio.
But my mother forgave him, and said, as she caressed
the back of his hand, that we could just listen to the swans.
And we listened. And I watched. Two birds coupling,
one beating its wings as it mounted the other. Summer,
1977. I listened. And watched. When my parents made love
late into that night, I covered my ears in the next room,
scanning the encyclopedia for swans. It meant nothing to me—
then, at least—but did you know the collective noun
for swans is a lamentation? And is a lamentation not
its own species of song? What a woman wails, punch drunk
in the street? Or what a widow might sing, learning her man
was drowned by swans? A lamentation of them? Imagine
the capsized boat, the panicked man, struck about the eyes,
nose, and mouth each time he comes up for air. Imagine
the birds coasting away and the waters suddenly calm.
Either trumpet swans or mutes. The dead man’s wife
running for help, crying to any who’d listen. A lamentation.
And a city busy saving itself. I’m digressing, sure. But
did you know that to digress means to stray from the flock?
When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which
I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left
the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday
I’ll leave this city. Its every flailing, its every animal song.
Made possible with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts