Moving Days


This has been a sticky, sweaty, unrepentant month of DC summer--and a month of moving. I'm not someone who takes well to liminal spaces.  I speak no second languages because I can't bear the in-between of faltering, approximated phrases. I've been known to char sponges and dish towels because I start cleaning the stove before the burner is off. So it's very hard for me to function in these sprawling days; my instinct is to line up, to square away, to settle. As we have hand-carried our lives into this place, one box and bag at a time, the building itself has been mid-facelift as well. This should be our last week of scaffolding (and its accordant 8 AM wake-up call of construction clatter); the halls smell like new paint. Patience. 

When moving, writers are always preoccupied by the question Will I be able to write here? And the panicked answer is almost always, initially, No. Or to be more precise: Noooooo. The chair I used for three books is gone, the leather seat having worn away to flakes and threads. What has been my desk now feels, more than ever, like a dining table. The overhead fan makes a regular, undeniable clicking noise. All of which has had me lying awake at night, terrified that I've Made the Wrong Decision and Will Never Write Again. 

The antidote to this abstract and paralyzing fear is as simple as writing, of course. I'll get there. Part of growing older is learning to ignore my inner Harbinger of Doom and Self-Doubt. 

One must take comfort in small pleasures, like pint glasses that have been chilled in the freezer beforehand, from which one drinks Boddinger's Pub Ale while muddling through hour two of sorting fifteen years' worth of cds while one sits on a bare floor. When one really should be writing. Because one is overdue on three major deadlines. 

A beacon of encouragement has been that this will be a place where I cook. Often. Enthusiastically. There is a spice rack. The oven need not double as a storage unit for six pans. I can actually open my fridge AND my dishwasher, all the way--O the novelty! Because our apartment approximates tropical rainforest levels of humidity, and because my love works evenings, we've been experimenting with the art of the "odds & ends" lunch that consumes the day's perishables. So far my favorite has been a linguine based with onion, bacon, and red peppers, with avocado added for creaminess. Sauté all of that together with salt, pepper, and chili flakes, fold in a little spinach and squeeze in some lemon juice before serving--voila. Cooking is a creative process. If I can improvise with flavors, words will follow. 


I've also relished being back in town for readings, which included hearing Katherine Hill at Politics & Prose yesterday to celebrate the release of her debut novel, The Violet Hour. Her images were tight--she has a poet's ear for metaphor, but curbs it in proportion to dialogue. The premise, a family's outing on a boat, set up the right balance of claustrophobia, humor, and tangible action. She had a standing-room-only crowd and a long Q&A; the book sold out. At her reception afterwards, Katherine's father--a fellow Board member at the Writer's Center--poured glasses of cava spiked with creme de violette, while his wife prepped a cake made in the image of the book's cover. "Did I do all right?" she asked them, which is the exact same question I ask my parents after every reading. Yes, you did, Katherine. In fact you kinda kicked ass. So thrilling when you can feel the electricity of a book that is going to be big, and deserves to be.

Long story short, I am laying low for a bit. Not even reading--except for the Sunday New York Times, which now miraculously appears on my doorstep each week. I am unpacking. Perspiring. Conspiring. Devising salads. Debating "lemongrass" versus "jade" as a rug color. Wondering how to curb the ripening of bananas. Re-acquainting myself with Tryst. Updating addresses in umpteen databases. Cleaning closets. Pondering file cabinets. Figuring out the most efficient elevator routes for a building with nine external doors. Meeting the new neighbors, like this epic pup, who seems to share my disposition toward this weather. Onwards.  Sometimes, the secret to a move is just that you gotta keep moving. 

Oh! And before I forget, I have one lil' reading in August--at Baked and Wired, my sister's favorite Georgetown spot--with some vagabonds of poetry: Justin Boening, Miriam Bird Greenberg, and John Fenlon Hogan. Justin won the Poetry Society of America's National Chapbook Fellowship with "Self-Portrait as a Missing Person," and this fall he'll be the Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University. Miriam teaches ESL in San Francisco (when not wandering) and has had stints at both P-Town and as a Stegner Fellow. John has had work popping up all over the place, including Boston Review and Quarterly West. Diana Khoi Nguyen, who is organizing it all, is a powerhouse of poetry herself, a Columbia grad and a recent Bread Loaf waiter. Frankly, I'm not sure I'm cool enough to be part of this line-up. But I'm excited to hear these new voices. The "Omission Summer Poetry Tour" stops off in DC at 6 PM on Monday, August 5, free. 

Onlookers with the Burned Body of Jesse Washington, 18-Year-Old African American, Waco, Texas, 1916

His mother at the edge of the crowd, blind with the impossible, standing
mute, agog, gone. And yet the smell of the smoke of her son's body
fills the air around her this May afternoon in Texas. The sun glitters
spectacular as is the custom on May afternoons in Texas and yet

comes through the years as a dull, smoky whiteness in the trees here
in the photograph I am tired of looking at. In which there is no woman
whatsoever, especially not the mother of Jesse Washington whose
charred body hangs from a chain in a chestnut tree in Waco Texas

in 1916. Instead, the front row of a crowd of white men all dressed
in suits and ties and fashionable hats stare into the camera. One laughs.
He is the youngest, with his sleeves rolled to the elbows. Another
smiles more slyly in the shadow of his hat and appears to be pulling

the slim chain that holds the body of Jesse Washington by the neck
up into the chestnut tree. Though it is probably silver-colored the chain
appears conveniently as the whitest element of the black-and-white.
After it wraps around his neck, it then drapes down the disfigured char

of Jesse Washington's back. Besides these onlookers standing
in the smoke in Texas in May in 1916, three facts are striking.
One is how the legs of Jesse Washington, as the chain pulls him
face-forward into the tree, how his legs bend at the knee and remain

so still burning and smoky where the muscles contract and pull
his feet upward so that if he had the freedom to lie on the ground
and burn he would. Instead it looks as if he is leaping a great
distance, his arms tucked into his chest by the same force that

turns a house to ash. The next fascinating fact of the photograph is
the faded blurry trees in the distance rising up over the crowd.
How filled they are with men. How crowded they are, how intent
they are on looking. As I am. For here in the perch of my second-

floor room of this house in Summit Point West Virginia I have sat
all evening staring at this photograph. I don't know why it interests me.
I know all these men. I was born in May and Texas hasn't changed.
Ask James Byrd Jr. who was so pulled by a truck with a chain.

Most white American men are the same color they were then.
Note the swift progression and the repetition of the true rhymes.
The divisive shift in the tone. If you feel the least bit attacked—
look at that—the final most fascinating fact of the photograph.


Steve Scafidi
from Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer

Other poems by Steve Scafidi posted at Against Oblivion:

"On the Death of Karla Faye Tucker"
"Prayer for a Marriage"
"The Sublime"
"The Egg Suckers"

POEM IN CURRENT ISSUE OF 32 POEMS

I am very pleased to say that my poem, "Louise Bruns Recalls the Dust Bowl Cattle Slaughter, Guymon, OK, 1934" appears in the current issue of 32 Poems.

You can also read my commentary (at the 32 Poems Blog) on another poem from the same issue, Joanna Pearson's "The Arsonists in Love."