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November 11, 2009

Arisa White

Statelessness is a part of my nature.

I resonate with the words of Martin Espada: “Strangely enough, this sense of never being at home, this sense of not truly belonging anywhere, produces a friction that sets off the sparks of poetry. If I am always at the margins, then I am by necessity the observer; if I am always on the outside, then I am by definition independent; if I am never anchored to one place, then I am free to wander; if I am never blinded by loyalty, then I am free to speak the truth as I see it.”

If I did not feel a sense of statelessness, I wouldn’t be so bold and courageous and willing to take risks, not only in my writing but with my life.

In the United States, especially, I have inherited the margin as a black, queer, poor woman. As I name those social identities and the politics and history that goes along it, I am very aware I inhabit a place within that social discourse only because of those labels, but not any of those identities truly name me, position me, or account for me in the ways that speak fully to my humanity.

I am not afraid of statelessness.

As a child, growing up in a large family—the second oldest of seven and an extended family that could easily reach one hundred members on any given holiday dinner—I sought ways to be outside of their company. Be it curling up in a closest, staying up past my bedtime just so I could enjoy the quiet that comes from not having to be in relationship to anyone else. (We take up so much space; I believe we forget we make demands on another’s presence even with our silence.) But I found those moments when I could venture into my interior spaces, those places not easily defined with words. The personal spaces that cannot reflect a cartographer’s whims—it is borderless and expansive and requires a true freeing of the self to enter—I’d go there, sing, tell stories, and come back revived to begin again social interactions.

If I nurture statelessness, that sense of not belonging, then I open myself to being connected to more people. My allegiance extends beyond what we can name and put our hands on.

Later, in my college years, I went to Ghana to study abroad for a semester. When I was there I was called an outsider, but at the same time, the Ghanians claimed me as one of their lost sisters. They told me that I was returning home. It was a beautiful, romantic gesture, and if I were seeking that sense of belonging, I would have greatly appreciated their hospitality. Instead I observed, seeing how even in “the motherland” I was named other. (Even in the United States people want to know where I am from. When I say Brooklyn, NY, they say, ‘No, no, that’s not what I mean.”)

Statelessness is possibilities—activity and inactivity can occur simultaneously. New thought and no thought. Meaning and obscurity. It is a conjunctive experience where opposites and contradictions find welcome.

Dan Alter

“Stateless” as an interior position, a set of habits of mind shaped over centuries.

As a response to two forces: from the outside, domination by bigger and better-armed groups which made our relationship to the places we lived conditional, tentative, and deeply insecure; and from the inside, dogged resistance to disappearing.

Forced, or adapting, inward into texts as our only sovereign territory. Making our state in our texts, building mighty structures of thought inside them, columns and arches of debates, long vaulted hallways ringing with rabbis’ arguments compacted into tiny Hebrew script.

In our time there exists again after two millenia a Jewish state, arguably a sea change; and great freedom for half the world’s Jews in the United States. Though along with this enstatedness, the insecurity of the contract with the ruling powers which grants it, continues as it ever was. And inward the habits remain.

In the inward space where text is territory, space is compressed: we call for rain in the land of Israel from Prague and Cleveland. Time is also compressed, mutable. We cycle endlessly through the desert with Moses and his rag-tag cantankerous tribes, and one can be live with Rashi in the 12th Century as if he was one’s uncle.

This inheritance statehood within the written word makes my experience of writing both weighty and rich–fraught with responsibility and glimmering with messianic possibility.

Poems: Dan Alter

Sestina: Studying Torah by the lake, far from where we first traveled

Where we had been became transparent,
as clear as molecules of water.
We did not understand the law,
it slipped through our fingers, these
thin things which we found
at the end of where our arms arrive.

And if the way we arrive
by this lake is honest, transparent,
do we see the other ones that found
themselves moving through a place without water,
arguing all night until these
days broke through their law?

But even though we follow the law
along its dirt roads, we will never arrive
at the country they made in these
verses, words that were rain, coming transparent
and steady from the sky to water
the soil their roots had found.

You hear one thing and you’ve found
another as you dig with the shovel of the law
into ground soft as water,
until the words climb up and arrive
all speaking, and your transparent
voice is only one of these.

Or maybe it’s that simple, what these
pages have to tell us, they’ve found
it, our dream, the transparent
one of families scattered by the law
of breaking and attraction, and so we read to arrive
at their surface like birds coming down to water.

I tried to talk about it, while the water
watched us circling around these
stories, the things that arrive
in clarity, I tried to speak and found
it slippery, like trying at the same time to state a law
of averages and exceptions. Yet it was transparent.

So we sit down here by the water, and stare through the transparent law
until we have found our own reflections,
glimmers that we carry as we leave, as we arrive.

Jerusalem, walking on the moon

And when a visitor wanders the path lace, his feet dragging up the sun-struck dust.

And when the parched city is foreign even to itself, one alley asks another in an accent where the market is.

He spells his lover’s name into a doorpost and then goes off through the stubborn pines, with their miserly shade.

Those domes, spots of our mighty ambition, gleam above the liquid pin-points of residents.

We went walking out until we hit the far valley drop. We saw a beautiful old bus and then there I was, holding the keys.

Poems: Arisa White

It is Evidence

There’s a small current in my lover’s hair.
When traced a woman’s song comes off in a tear
and the tear is what my grandmother
says makes a woman lose her mind.

No way to return her thoughts to her body,
she’s a refugee. Looks for the first taste of home—
a curry or kimchi to rid the amnesia
that balls her hair into a fist—
fights to keep a man in her itineraries,
a child from the grief that turned
her tongue a rusted knob.

It’s a track she’s mending
without puncturing her chest.
A migration so great the island left is a wave,
the kin, kindling for the note never sent: I’m lonely,
is how she arranged her bones.
The firemen didn’t touch.
It was evidence, my grandmother said.

Along Telegraph

East Bay Rats are across the street from Gold Coin Car Wash

Oaksterdam is across the street from Victory Stables

Greyhound is across the street from Social Services

The woman in sequins is across the street from EBT Cards Accepted

The cross on his chest made my body the more bare. Compelled to be a blanket, fur, however he would have me, he had me. His god was something to hang on to. A chain that made return possible. My reflection sullied the gold. It dimmed above or beneath me, a way a mother’s face turns off her love. She offers enough to guide you towards her but her withdrawal leaves a cold spot, hollowed earth after a stake’s been pulled.

The house we couldn’t build is across from the house I wouldn’t build

Makes miracles happen is across from when whiskey made my tongue thirsty for hers

Blue Bird Liquor is across the street from the bathroom whose orange walls could not muffle

Hotel California is across from Broaster’s Chicken coming soon

Men, when they do, cross their legs in the way of academics. Never in the way of churchwomen who keep the secret covered—there’s nothing to be implored, explored, discovered. In the way of academics, the whole body thinks. To the side, he shows a chin propped by a fist, between his cheeks thought is candy, eyes turn skyward. In the way of churchwomen their eyes look down, to their breast, beneath their shirt, to the source of much anxiety, a nipple, pleasured by the touch of rayon.

City Line is a hand hennaed and scarred

Retro the Victorian’s scaffolded face

Free Baby Jamaica from the bus’ accordion folds

Black & White the street for a frantic Dodge, a passenger lost

I cross my t’s and think men are dying. The bushes sing baritone and contralto, from someone’s gut a baby’s born. For every shattered platelet, men are folding into each other, bodies pressed like puzzles. There’s comfort knowing his edge has a home. In a T. In a cup or covering the chest, he values sunrise, for days to speed, for the soul to let go bone. He the more aware death’s a trespasser, and the heart will bark ‘til a red meat turns it elsewhere—a man at the end of wait.

Rent-a-Relic is the fence that says this side, mine; this side, you stay

The rainbow an International Blvd where pussy is young and produce is wilted

The lake is the ocean whose skin is split by pirates who negotiate with corporations

The senior citizens home weeps willows in his and hers yards

Cross my heart and hope, a needle in the eye. The cross is an X, really. Is how to find a treasure. How to hug at an end of a letter. If you dig where I mark, what do you do with the gravel, the flesh that slips back into the hole? Mail it to my brother, he is the most poetic. He will blend it with oil-colors and spend nights on canvas, painting verse after verse, with the breathiest weather, a text you can prism.

Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow and holds a MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Factory Hollow Press published her chapbook *Disposition for Shininess in late 2008. In 2009 she was awarded the your word fellowship from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, received a Poets & Writers grant in 2008, and the 2007 Pavel Strut Fellowship in Poetry from the University of Western Michigan for a month-long residency in Prague. In 2006 she received the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and a writing residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Her poem “Who Invited the Monkey to Omen’s Party” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005.*

Dan Alter is published in *Camelia, Southern Lights; Pen South Anthology and Zeek’s Fall 2009 print issue. Dan was a finalist for the 2008-2009 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Awards for Poems on the Jewish Experience and has been a Fellow on the Arad Arts Project, 1992. He lives in Oakland with his wife Jess, and makes his living as a union electrician. *

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