Relentless Files — Week 66 (#52essays2017 Week 13)

*An essay a week in 2017*

I haven’t been able to write for days. For two long weeks, I haven’t been able to write anything beyond a few sentences. Fragments.

Something is shifting in me. This something is heavy and dark and painful. This something is necessary..but shit, it’s so much when we’re in the shifting.

“…Transformation has some very harrowing phases. This full moon will exaggerate all that gets in the way of the balance we need to strike. This full moon illuminates the truth that balance isn’t static.

“Balance is a constant state of recalibration.” Chani Nicholas: Today’s Full Moon in Libra: Beauty Bound 

Yesterday, on my deck, after hours on my couch, I wrote this:

There is a hole where my words are. In the hole lives grief. Stealth and quiet with the fury of winds that can destroy. Annihilate. 

It is warm in NYC. I am on my deck smelling and tasting spring. Wondering when these seeds will blossom like those on the tree that peek into my window. Just yesterday they were tight in their buds. Today they are busting green. Aflame like my envy.

My hands cannot grip a pen. Those lines on the page stare. I grab my phone. I finally rise from where my body has made indentations in the cushions. They rise slowly, searching for space to be full.

Me…I miss my brother.


Today, I went to The Women Writers of Color group’s final installment of this year’s Breakaway Writing Workshop Series. The featured artist was Yesenia Montilla, who led a generative writing workshop inspired by women writers of color. She had us read poems by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Aracelis Girmay, Valzhyna Mort, Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Natalie Diaz. After each poem, she gave us prompts and had us write for ten minutes. It was magical and hard and wrenching and necessary. So fuckin necessary.

Yesenia started by talking about duende, the term Lorca is said to have stolen from the gypsies of Spain. Duende is the idea of creating art that comes from darkness, from the ground, from the connection of the bottom of the feet to the earth. It is art created from the body.


Lorca visited Harlem in the turn of the 20th century. That’s where he first heard blues, which he said was the closest thing to duende he’d ever heard.

Yesenia had us hear Kathleen Battle singing “Summertime” at the Met. Then she had us hear the Janis Joplin cover of the same song. 

The idea here is that there are two places an artist pulls from, and Battle and Joplin were examples of both.

Battle pulls from the ethereal. From the heavens. “A voice from God,” Yesenia said. 

Joplin pulls from the soles of her feet. Her voice is gravelly and gritty. She is tapping into her ache.

My discovery: I pull from my feet. From the mother that is earth. I pull from my pain, like Joplin. I listened to her sing as I typed this.


I bought a new journal at an art supply store steps away from Pratt where the workshop was held. I bought new pens. Paid $10 for a mechanical pencil. 10 fuckin dollars for a pencil?

I was inviting duende. Calling duende. I know that now.

Truth is I thought I’d left all my pens at home. I chastised myself on the train. If you know me, you know that I only write with the blue Pilot Precise V5. I found it in the fall of my freshman year at Columbia, back in ’93. I’ve been writing with it since. 24 years. I thought: How can I write without my pen? I sulked. Then I thought: “I’ll find one.” Sure enough I did. Later, I found that I had in fact brought a pen. It was tucked into The Body Keeps the Score, which I’ve been reading slowly and quietly, digesting the mirror it holds up, annotating it heavily.


Inspiration: “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Prompt: Start writing using the first few words of the poem: “Listen: there was…”

Listen: there was a girl
lost in the woods
lost in the spring
the earth just beginning to burst
with life… the wet of it a
pungent, mossy smell in
the girl’s nostrils… she searched
for the hawk whose cry
she heard loud through
the canopy.. She thought
she felt the whisper of
a wing on her cheek, but
when she turned, nothing
was there… just trees and
brambles and bushes
not yet fully green but
trying for life… reaching
for it…

She walked on, this girl
who was lost in the
woods… she followed
trails that had been
made by the feet of
souls long gone… they
too, lost… they too,

She, this lost girl, stayed
off the paved paths… she
didn’t/doesn’t trust
paths laid down by men…
she needed to feel the
dirt under her feet, she
needed to be cut by the
thorns that tore at her
bare legs…

Listen: this girl who is
lost, felt a hand on her
shoulder. She turned
around quickly, “Who’s
there?” she yelled. The wind
shook the trees. A blossom,
only days old and still
trying for life, fell at her
feet. She picked it up,
sniffed its sweetness
and walked on…

She came to a river.
There, she stripped down
to her underwear, and
walked into the water.
She felt something pull
her head back, a soft
tugging. This is a baptism,
she thought, as the
water rushed into her ears.
She opened her eyes
and saw her,
hair dancing in the
“Hija,” she mouthed, bubbles
floating out of her mouth.
The girl reached, cried
out, “Mamá.” She
swallowed water,
gagged as she felt a
push from the soles of
her feet, pushing her
body up so she could breathe…

When she came to, she was
on the shore.
Her dress back on her body.
A garland of flowers
on her head.


Inspiration: “Kingdom Animalia” by Aracelis Girmay

Prompt: How do we imagine loss? How do we process death? Start with a line from the poem: “One day, not today, not now, we will be gone from this earth…”

In the red woods where
they took me that first day,
when my brother died,
I looked up at the
trees, their long, hairy
trunks… I learned that
these trees entangle their
roots with one another to
keep themselves upright…
These giants can’t be giant
without other giants…

I think of my brother.
I think of the last words
he said to me: “You have to
go write our stories, sis.”

I think of my second mom Millie, who
when I told her on her death
bed, “Millie, I think I
wanna write a book,” she
propped herself up on that
arm that was perpetually
swollen after the
mastectomy, and said:
“Pero negra, you’ve always
been a writer.”

In some forests, trees keep
stumps alive by feeding them sugar through their roots.

One day, I will be gone.
I know this… I don’t
want to. I think:
“What will I leave my

What did my brother
leave me? Permission.

What did my Millie
leave me? Validation.

What will I leave my
nena? Stories. Love.
The knowledge that I
loved her like my mother
couldn’t, wouldn’t love

I leave her knowing
that she will hurt,
she will ache, and with
that, she can make
sancocho that will/
can feed.
She must gather her own
viandas, herbs and meats
to make her own sancocho.
Mamá will leave her
the broth.


Inspiration: “Belarusian I” by Valzhyna Mort

Prompts: This love loved to visit us… -or- I was born with… (An Argentinian poet wrote “I was born with red lipstick on…”)

I was born with sugar
on my lips.
Crystallized and syrupy,
I was born with honey
on my lips.
But mommy was no bee.
Mom was salt and glacier.
Mom was too much
vinagre in sofrito.
Mommy was a love song
on Super KQ —
one of those corta venas
ballads that she scream sang,
her head thrown back,
the King Pine scent
snaking up her legs,
underneath her bata…
to where I came into
the world…
This girl who was born
with honey on her lips.

But didn’t I tell you
Mommy was no bee?
She’d swat them away
with her heavy,
little hands.
She’d go to their hives and
snatch them out,
her skin impervious to
their sting.
She pulled their wings
off and cackled as they
cried… scurrying over
the earth they were
made to fly over.

I am the girl born
with honey on her lips
to a mother who
killed bees…
I have spent my
life trying to lick that
honey off. To banish it
from me. An exorcism…
But bee killers smell
honey from far away.
Their sense of smell keen
Iike a dog’s.
They smell honey and
think — kill,
think — destroy.

These days I am building
a hive for this honey
on my lips that I was
born with. I watch
over it, tending and
coddling. This hive.
These lips…


Inspiration: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

Prompt: Think about forgiveness and accepting forgiveness. Who have you not forgiven? Imagine the day you forgive that someone. -or- A blue door appears in the room. You go through it…

(I didn’t want to think about forgiveness. I wanted to stay mad…so, of course, she who I have not forgiven showed up, despite my resistance.)

Blue door beckons and says:
The words like a growl,
teeth clenched and grinding.
It calls to me.
I should be scared but
I’m not.
I was born with sugar on
my lips, pero that
was a front. Honey
to hide the growl in my
throat, the howl like the
sirens that coaxed so many
men to their deaths.

Beyond the door is a
field, there are flowers
of all variety and color, they
sway in the soft wind.
They are like whispers
beneath my bare feet.
I’m not surprised when
I feel the roots start
to tangle around my
ankles. They pull at me.
They snare.
I look down and I see her–
the weaver.
She who I want to but
can’t forgive.
I grit my teeth, the
siren crawls out of
my throat. I want to
whirlpool her.

I wonder how that happens —
how you can go from loving
someone and protecting them
to wanting to destroy
To curling your lips when
you speak their name, and
so you don’t. That poison
doesn’t mix with your honey.

You think of the girl you were
who invited betrayal
and disloyalty because you
didn’t love yourself.
This was before you grew
to own that honey.
And even now, some days,
when the roots wrap
around your ankles and
pull, the thorns dig in
and you begin to bleed,
heavy drops beading
into the earth. You
let your skin be sacrifice.
You drip honey into the open
You call your siren back into the
flower of your throat.

You look back at the blue
door and smile.
“Remember,” she whispers
back at you. “Remember.”


Inspiration: “From the House of Yemanjá” by Audre Lorde

Prompt: Think of mother figures. Think of the gods and goddesses we worship. Write an open letter to him or her.


Mi madre is my alter
and my abyss…
Why did you give me this
mother who could never
love me?
Was there no other way to teach me
these lessons I need to learn
in this lifetime?
Could the lesson not be

Don’t answer that.
I know.

I am one who learns through
I have to drag my body across
fire stones, feel their scarring,
ripping at my
This is the way for us girls
born with honey on our lips.
Pero, mamá, madre eres, why
could you not gift me a mother
who could love?

My mother is
She is dynamite.
She detonates
and erupts.
She destroys everything…
but me.
Me — she couldn’t.
Me — I didn’t let her.

My mother
whose body knows the
claws of rape,
who knows the fangs of hunger.
My mother who has wished
for death since she was 15 —
my mother…

I sit like her
One knee propped under my chin
The other leg tucked underneath.
I hum like her,
while I cook and clean and
stare off,
into nothing.
Here, but not.
I didn’t know this until I was 40,
after having left her house
at 13…

I carry my mother under
my fingernails
 like dirt…
This woman who is TNT.


Yesenia gave us time to share one piece we’d produced that day. One writer, a beautiful young woman with a hoop in her nose and tattoos on her arms, prefaced her piece with: “This poem is about my mother. All my poems are about my mother.”

And I said “Yasss.” And I felt that shame and anger in my body move and subside…that exhaustion with the altar and abyss that is my mother.

Why the fuck do I always have to write about my mother?


I listened to Janis Joplin as I typed this. In the gravel that is her voice, I saw myself, this woman who pulls from the ache in her joints, from the earth, from the soles of her feet…

Today, duende pulled at the siren in my throat. Today, duende grabbed and yanked at my pen. Today I surrendered to duende, and I’m so glad that I did.

Thank you Yesenia Montilla. You be magic, sis. Word.


One comment

  1. ‘I was born with sugar…’ is amazing and possibly my favourite one (if I had to choose). 💜💜💜 You are such an inspiration xx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s