For a few years now, working on a collection of epistolary poems, addressed to my estranged father, I’ve been pronouncing epistles like “epistols.”
It is a vulnerable making process to write to a father who has been absent from my life for over three decades—an absence that has required me to listen, and therefore write, in a new way. The collection, dear Gerald, is me talking to the silence, out of it, around it, but always aware that it is there, unknown and important and a critical part of my personal history.
I know a smattering of details about my father, Gerald. His father and brother were in the police force, and from my research on Guyana, the police force is a paramilitary arm of the government. The “epistol” evokes this family history. Maybe I need a pistol on this journey; one that’s loaded with words and unexpressed emotion, and when the trigger is pulled, my voice is liberated. Ringing through the air, announcing I am here. There is a report. Father, do you hear me?
My mother reminds me
of a time when I bumped
into you on Nostrand Ave.
I was near graduating
elementary school and
don’t remember this.
Not a beard or brow,
style of shirt doesn’t
come to mind, how
you said hello moved
northbound with traffic.
Where you stood, blank
and scent of curry.
My eyes look
and in looking
they find nothing and
that nothing is everything.
Musk and incense,
knotty-dread chewing bark—
knock-off handbags, bootleg
held inside his coat. He’s
tempted to find my need,
so he can make a sail.
Is it true they deported
you back to Guyana
for killing a man?
Your countrymen risked
their lives, stowed away
in refrigerators to American
land to stand on.
When I tally kerchiefs
of your kin, flagging pockets,
heads, antennae clearing waves,
it must have been a sweet
conflagration that took
the avenue to ash.
I’m a woman born to widow
and eat veils. I herd my self
through smoke and bells,
sky-sure when seeing my departed.
bell hooks writes in Talking Back that
“Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice.”
My mother asked me the day of my 33rd birthday if I wanted to write my father in Guyana, his homeland, where he was deported for involvement in a criminal case. She had an address. My father is part real and part mythology for me—he’s made up from a pastiche of stories, collected from others. What to say to a man who is my father and my imagination?
dear Gerald is biomythography, a term coined by poet Audre Lorde to describe her book Zami. Ted Wharton describes biomythography as “weaving together of myth, history and biography in epic narrative form, a style of composition that represents all the ways in which we perceive the world.” The intertexuality of the genre provided an approach for translating the degrees of silences nestled inside me, the preverbal unsaid and things I’m afraid to say. There are typographical poems, prose is used, free verse and formal, and references to the Torah, Obama’s 2012 election speech, popular culture, mensuration, oh my.
Addressing these poems to my father, a patriarchal and absent figure—the model for all our governance—is an act of empowering myself and holding my lived experiences as universal truths. I put myself at the center of the narrative, as well as those like me, and I’m transformed by this shift in consciousness. I declare my presence with the force that made abandonment possible. I’ve learned my power. Father, you will see me. I will speak in metaphors, lyrically, subject-verbs in disagreement, from the vestiges of English creole you left in my three-year-old ears.
I’m one of those people who find letters on the sidewalk, left behind on public transportation, read them and keep them as if they were written to me. The letters are always addressed to lovers: making a plea to stay, making a case for leaving. It’s terribly romantic, even in how those letters aligned themselves with the literary tradition of Romanticism—colloquial language and powerful feelings. I never found the final draft of a letter, instead what I got were missives with paragraphs crossed out, no signature, and the writer was very clear in her emotion. She wasn’t concerned, as much I was with dear Gerald, about how to translate these emotive responses into poetic form. For the following, excerpted poem, “rain,” I played with the idea of how to make a poem cry. There’s something very sentimental about that, but I wanted each drop, each fragment, to be it’s own unit of meaning; it’s own tear:
In Talking Back, hooks, brings up the issue of audience:
“To make the liberated voice, one must confront the issue of audience—we must know to whom we speak. When I began writing my first book, Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism, the initial completed manuscript was excessively long and very repetitious. Reading it critically . . . my words were written to explain, to placate, to appease. They contained the fear of speaking that often characterizes the way those in a lower position within a hierarchy address those in a higher position of authority. . . . Writing this book was for me a radical gesture. It not only brought me face-to-face with this question of power; it forced me to resolve this question, to act, to find my voice, to become that subject who could place herself and those like her at the center of feminist discourse. I was transformed in consciousness and being.”
My father, as an audience, called up fear. A fear of rejection, primarily for being a queer woman in an interracial relationship, and I would hit up against that anxiety when I started to write about my romances. I have a natural impulse to share, unless I’m fearful in some way, and therefore don’t feel safe. It became all those homophobic voices I heard, especially from those closest to me like, “We don’t need to know who you sleep with,” yet all around us children and the heteros that made them. The same kind of anxiety when talking about getting my period—the feminine/queer details of my life felt taboo and there was the protective urge to quiet them. When you speak up or speak about yourself, you talk back to all the narratives that have mastered you, so that you can be centered in a voice of your own authority. I countered the censors with “What is there to lose? He’s been out of your life longer than he’s been in it;” as well as made connections through cultural and personal history, using what little I knew about him to mend the foundation of our relationship. In the end, what took priority was creating an honest portrait of a poet and a woman.
Why do I partner up with women who can’t find their things?
These aren’t things they seldom use—these are objects for the daily.
Keys and wallets, agendas and phones. My things have their places
and I’ve a strategy for bringing them back into my possession.
If I need her help, that’s the final option; and what irks me
is finding her things in the open, in her jacket she wore
the night before, or on the table, peeking from underneath
the cable bill.
All their stuff in nooks, spread and sprawled, commands attention,
requires care, and they can’t keep their eyes on it. These fatherless
women I love, my mother included, on the daily make their selves lost
to be found and I retrieve what’s missing, which reminds them they
haven’t been abandoned.
I don’t entrust them to find what belongs to me. I don’t expect them
to get stressed out, neck tight, and shallow breaths to look for what’s mine.
I resent their empty hands when I pretend these expectations don’t exist,
and I ask, Are you my daddy?
Send me your “epistols”: I know there are others who are estranged from their fathers, who are bastards, forgotten, or who have lost a father who was never present, and I want your letters in exchange for a copy of dear Gerald. Seriously. Your “epistols” will be inspiration for a second collection, which I’m considering to title: Who’s Your Daddy? Visit http://atoguyana.wordpress.com/dear-gerald-letter-submissions/ to learn about how to submit.
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, Sarah Lawrence College alumna, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon. One of the founding editors for HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA, she is a Kore Biters’ columnist at Kore Press. A native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her wife, Arisa is an advisory board member for Flying Object and a BFA Creative Writing faculty member at Goddard College. She was awarded a 2013-14 Cultural Funding Grant from the City of Oakland to create the libretto and score for Post Pardon: The Opera, and received, in that same year, an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation to fund the dear Gerald, A to Guyana, project, which takes a personal and collective look at absent fathers.