What am I thinking of today: community, how we hold each other. The many times I was reminded of love at AWP, even in those moments where I was lost and anxious and unhinged. And I’m thinking about why we write what we write. Why I write what I write…
My second day at AWP was in a word: hard. It started with news that VONA’s Executive Director Diem Jones was injured, so I did what I do and ran to the Book Fair though I wasn’t slated to be there. I was needed, so I went.
I was standing there alone, setting up, when it happened. A black man, skin smooth and shiny, walked by. I looked up and saw the back of his head. I saw him: my brother. He’s been gone for a year and ten months now, so I knew it wasn’t him, but that didn’t prevent my breath from getting caught in my throat. The “Oh my god” whisper that roared from my chest. I fell back. Thank God there was a seat behind me to catch me. I followed the man with my eyes. He stopped at the Cave Canem table up the aisle. A light mustache on his upper lip, a small inverted triangle of black hair below his lower lip. Like my brother. His shoulders were wide and strong. Like my brother. I blinked hard. I mouthed a silent, “Carlos…” Then I shook myself off and set to work, porque cuando uno se siente asi, no hay mas na’. You work to forget…or at least to try to.
When my VONA sisters Melissa and Tanuja arrived, we worked together to figure out how to put the VONA banners up. Or, better said, they figured out how to put them up. Me? I sat there and let them do their thing and did as I was told: Hold this. Insert that there. I’m good at many things. Building equipment is not one of them. I once put an Ikea closet together by myself. Just me and a hammer and a Phillips screwdriver. That closet felt apart not two months later. But this is the thing about community: people step in and it’s together that things are done. Those banners went up. We cheered and high fived. Then we took a picture.
Later, when I almost had an anxiety attack after seeing that black body being stepped over just moments after the panel on writing about violence, these same women held me and let me cry. Two other women from the community, Nivea and JP, took me out of there for a while, so I could breathe and eat and feel. That’s what community does.
I went to AWP with a list of panels I wanted to go to. I went to only one. It just be like that sometimes. On the second day, my VONA sis Christina told me she was going to a panel on writing about violence. I read the description and said, “Oh shit, I have to go to that.”
F139. Blood Will Out: Putting Violence on the Page.
Panelists: Richard Bausch, Ed Falco, Cate Marvin, Roger Reeves, Melissa Stein
What makes violence so compelling a subject? How do we reconcile writing gorgeously about unspeakable things? When should we employ grisly details, and when would restraint have more emotional impact? What right do we have to write about violence we haven’t experienced ourselves? How can we do justice to the consequences and complexities of violence? Five award-winning prose writers and poets explore the allure and perils of violence both physical and psychological.
Ed Falco started his remarks with a story. When he was in his twenties he worked the night shift at a horse farm (yes, they exist, apparently; this city girl didn’t know that). His job was to watch the mares birth (“foal” is what he called it) and call the veterinarian if problems arose. Falco loved the job because it was easy and he could write for hours on end. Since his shift was 6pm to 6am, he inevitably fell asleep. One day, Falco slept for longer than he should have. When he woke up, he saw a mare in distress. The foal was still half-way in his mama and he was dry, which meant the afterbirth (amniotic sac) was still in the mare. He called the veterinarian from a phone in the barn that was directly connected to the vet’s line. The vet arrived and examined the mare and the foal. He then sent the young Falco to his car to get a bolt cutter. If you’ve ever seen a bolt cutter, which I have, you know it’s a giant metal tool used to break locks. I’ve seen it used at the gym when a member loses her key and needs her lock snapped to get to her items in the locker. I shivered when I imagined hearing that line, “Get the bolt cutter from my trunk.” When Falco returned, the vet told the young writer to use that bolt cutter to cut the mare’s spine. By that time, the mare couldn’t be saved. I imagined the vet cutting the mare’s throat to put her out of her misery. Or maybe he snapped her neck. The goal then was to save the foal. In the end, neither was saved, and Falco had to help the vet bury both mare and foal out back behind the barn. The pieces of what was left of their bodies…
Falco talked about how that experience ripped a piece of the fabric of his life. He tried to write about it immediately but it took him ten years to get the story down. He said that in reckoning with the question of why we write about violence, he went back to this story. We write about violence to make sense of it, Falco said. To give it meaning. To make it less random and merciless. To give it worth. To sew up the rip in the fabric of our lives. As an escape from it. To step outside of it for a while. But sometimes, the events are so ghastly, there isn’t enough story to close the rip…but still, we try.
Story as needle and thread…
I thought about the traumas I write about. About the violence, both the violence that was inflicted on me and the violence that wasn’t but that I’ve suffered as an after effect…my mother’s rape. How that violent act shaped her as a mother and why she couldn’t (still can’t) love me. How that violence made me an unmothered woman. How my mother never spoke to me about the rape until after my brother died. My brother who was conceived in that rape.
One late evening during the cruise we went on as a family just two months after my brother passed in June of 2013, I was walking with my mother on the upper deck of the ship. Mom had taken to asking me to go on these long walks with her, sometimes in the evening, sometimes early. There was a warm breeze on the upper deck. Mom stopped and stared off at the water. I watched her and followed her eyes. Fly fish skidded on the surface. The setting sun reflected hues of reds and purples and yellows on the water and in the sky. “I never got over what happened to me, hija,” mom said. How could she?
Richard Bosche spoke of ways to write about the violent act, so when writing of a terrible car accident, not describing the blood, but rather, describing someone putting the front tail light back together, piece by piece. The image more striking than the description of the guts and gore.
This morning I went for a walk in the park. Inwood Hill Park by my home is the only natural forest on Manhattan island, and it is my savior, my safe space, where I run to to get away from the crazy of the world. I sit. I walk. I feel. I listen. I feed the birds. I watch them play. I listen to them sing. I watch them attack each other.
I saw two bluebirds bullying each other and other smaller birds, chickadees, cardinals, barn swallows; all of them vying for the seed I put down. Then I saw two robins go at it. One chased and chased, chirping loudly, violently, they went round and round in dizzying circles until one (the chaser) finally got tired. And I saw others join the fray, as if goading them on.
I’ve seen blue jays team up on a squirrel that got too close to their nest. That squirrel ran so fast while the blue jays dove at it, poking and flapping as if to say, “Don’t fuck with us.”
I once saw a blue jay attack a hawk in mid-air. Diving at it and veering away just before she was caught in the hawk’s talons or its vicious beak.
I thought back to that panel, to what Cate Marvin said about violence being part of the world. I gasped. I didn’t want to accept that. Why? Why is it a part of the world? Why should it be? “Just look at nature,” she said.
Falco at one point said that in order to understand the horrors of human nature, you have to identify with it, a piece of it, in yourself.
When I read those words in my journal, I thought of that black man on the ground. All the people that stepped over him. That white man who said, “It has to be heroin.” His face was contorted in this look of utter disgust. I recognize that face because I used to sneer and turn my nose up at addicts too.
I can see the humanity of a drug addict because of my brother. My brother who was an addict for fifteen years. I’ve been staring at my shame since he died on June 24th of 2013. How ashamed I was when he walked into my office back in 2008 when I worked as an editor in Union Square, just blocks from his methadone program. He already had the heroin face, hollow cheeks and sunken eyes; his face drooped like a bloodhound’s. I scurried him out of the office every time he came by. I once told him, “You have to call me before you come to my office, bro.” “Why?” he asked, searching my face. “You just have to,” I said without looking at him.
That shit digs into me, that I let my shame rule me. That I gave a fuck what those people would think. This brother of mine who loved me so much, who told me all the time, “I’m proud of you sis.” When he died I read everything I could get my hands on about heroin and addiction. I wanted to understand…
I can’t get the image of that black body on the floor out of my mind. People stepping over him. People walking by. No one in a conference attended by 12,000, thought to get him help.
A memory came to me last night. I couldn’t write it until this morning. I’m not sure I’ve ever written it. It happened maybe fifteen years ago. I was out with friends at an afterhours spot in the North Bronx. I was standing at the sink in the ladies bathroom trying to wash the drunk from my eyes when a man’s body fell into the bathroom with a thud. It was the force of his body falling that pushed the door open. I froze and watched the blood gush out of the gaping wound on the left side of his abdomen. Women ran out, leaping over his body in their heels, red and black and bright blue. A few were crying. One screamed. I just stood there and watched the blood pool. He’d been stabbed by a broken bottle of Heineken. That bottle lay just inches from him, its jagged edges dripping. I could hear my name being called from somewhere but couldn’t pull my eyes away. He’s about 25, like me, I thought. My God, there was so much blood. Then I heard it, his voice, the man I was dating who is still a dear friend of mine, Jason said, “Vanessa. Vanessa! Don’t look. Just come ‘ere. Look at me, V. Look at me.” I looked up and walked towards him. I looked down as I passed so I wouldn’t step in the blood. That body lay there for so long. The cops didn’t come. No paramedics. No ambulance. No one put their hands on the wound to staunch the bleeding. I didn’t put my hands on that man to stop the bleeding. I just buried my face in my lover’s chest and I cried. That man died right there on that floor of an after-hours nightclub in a warehouse in the north Bronx.
I wrote this in my journal during that panel:
What did he think when he
lied my six year old body
Did he think of the daughter
he never had?
Did he think of his wife?
Or of the plums on the tree
just outside the window?
The plums not yet ripe, still green
still longing to fall to the
The sweet juice dripping down the
“This is delicious”
uttered from red lips
How do you humanize the monster?