Book Review: Truth Thomas’s Speak Water

speak water

Truth’s new poetry book

I live in an 1830s mill worker’s house on the Patapsco River in the picture-postcard part of Ellicott City, MD. A year ago, Truth Thomas, guest editor for our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue, sat at my dining room table. Before we got down to business with Linda Joy Burke, an LPR contributing editor, two things occurred.

First, Truth heard a train rumbling along the tracks on the high bank forming the other side of the river and ran out to the front porch. He watched it go by with all the delight of a small child. Then, after he came inside and Linda Joy joined us, he told us about the time he was looking in the window of an antiques shop down the hill from my house and two white men driving by in a blue pickup truck hurled racial slurs at him. The juxtaposition of those two things tore my heart.

The latter occurrence served as an impetus for Truth to learn to “speak water,” a term offered with a smile but no precise definition. And made me want to make absolutely sure that I got the right person to review speak water when it came out. That was Joseph Ross, who not only knew about prejudice from being a gay white male but could also turn that into poetry about the African-American experience, as amply demonstrated by “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God,” published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue.

When I asked Joseph if he might be willing to write a review, he said he would be happy to do this. No need to send a review copy. He already had speak water sitting on his bed stand, waiting to be read. Once he finished reading it, this was what he wrote:

If  the word “scripture” means “sacred writing,” then speak water is, in a sense, scripture. Biblical images weave all through this powerful collection. The poems dare to both lament and celebrate, they have both memory and vision.

As in the Bible, speak water divides into two sections. The first, “The Dry Land Earth,” uses images from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The second, “Hand Dances at the Well,” draws largely from New Testament images. But these poems are not religious in the traditional sense. These poems use biblical images, looking back, in order to focus the reader on the present world. This is the collection’s strength: these poems witness and call. They describe our human condition in sometimes searing, sometimes playful language.

The book begins, as you would guess, with a poem called “Genesis.” The poem opens with the biblical creation mantra “In the beginning…” and then hurls us into the present, or near-present.

In the beginning, God made heaven, earth
and Shalanda “Sha Sha” Haywood, born in
Brooklyn, August, 1972—died in Maryland,
July, 2010. None of this you will remember

“Genesis” continues as a kind of creation story, or a genealogy. We learn of a family’s losses and its humanity.

“What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” continues the Genesis imagery in a humorous way. Taking the tempting voice of Eden’s snake, we hear a new version of seduction. This snake flirts with Eve, calling her hips “wide as sky,” naming her a “goddess.” Sadly, we never hear Eve’s response. But the snake urges relentlessly. You can almost see him winking as he says, “Just let me introduce you / to a little nibble. I’m sure God will understand.”

Among the most moving poems in this section is “Auntie.” This poem celebrates a woman’s strength and love. We learn that she “parted coupon seas / at the Kroger.” The speaker and the woman “rode all over segregation’s / feathered carcass.” Finally, in a tender closing, the speaker “snuggled in her side like a rib / returning home.”

I couldn’t help laughing out loud while reading “On Flat Langston’s Escape from Busboys and Poets Plantation.” Here, Thomas writes of an event in the Washington, DC poetry scene where a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes was stolen from a restaurant. This poem is hymn-like in its four-line stanzas and echoes Hughes with its careful rhymes. Thomas stays true to his justice themes as well. The cutout is, after all, liberated from a “plantation.” One almost wants to shout “Hallelujah!”

In the second section, “Hand Dances at the Well,” Thomas continues with poems that move because of their carefully crafted quality. Echoing the first section’s “Genesis,” this section begins with “Sunday Kind of Love,” which fuses the first miracle in John’s Gospel, the wedding feast at Cana, with a modern woman’s challenging life.

Shayna reads the Word and takes
the story of that first miracle as
serious as unpaid electric bills in

The poems in this section are replete with New Testament images and language. We get hints of the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Mark, Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, the need to born again and more. Thomas uses these images with a light touch. If these poems preach–and they do–they are not preachy.

We are treated to both craft and insight. In “Sermon on the Block,” he tells us:

Blessed are the homeless who find ATM asylum for
their offering kingdom does not sleep nor slumber.

Blessed are those who do not mourn the death of paychecks:
for eviction shall overlook them like the Passover angel.

“The Third World” struck me as a powerfully written poem using the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross as an entry point to consider the effect of lengthy incarceration on a prisoner’s mother.

Woman behold thy son–thy daughter, eighty-sixed in 8 by 6,
leg iron limp–wait, growling gut–wait, food arms wagging
steel door lips for bread of birdcage shit.

This compelling book closes with three poems that provoke the reader to consider the power of race, memory and art itself. In “Revelation,” we hear the African-American game of the Dozens in a reflection on race.

You so black,
eclipses wear you
for sunglasses.

This clever poem ends with a warning and celebration:

so black–so so so
eggplant, banana black, red-
boned, peanut butter, you can

never be

“We Too, The Foundation” takes us back to Hughes and celebrates other ancestors such as Aristotle, Malcolm X, Whitman and Martin Luther King.

This beautiful book closes with thoughts on the power of poetry and art. “Intersections” recalls a reading series of the same name in Washington, DC.

…on a snowplow rumbling
night, art wanders in off the street
to hold its own hand…

We see an art here that

will not “be good.” It will
interrupt you when you are speaking
and not say “excuse me.” It will duck
inside your door and eat up all your
cookies because it is hungry. It is
always hungry—especially here in
Anacostia’s abandoned mouth—

Thomas has created a strong and beautiful book of poems here. For those who don’t know biblical images, some of his descriptions might not land where he wants. For those who are turned off by biblical images, this might not be their book either. But if one gives these poems a chance, they can do what the best poems do: take us deeper into our own lives and deeper into the world.

In his review, Joseph captures the same contrasting aspects of Truth and his world that I witnessed that August afternoon at my home. But he cannot reproduce Truth’s speaking voice from a print book. Since Truth is a singer-songwriter as well as a poet, he deserves to be heard. Here he is reading his work at our Salon Series event. Listening to the speak water poem “What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” there was pure pleasure.

Note: You can get more background on speak water from a recent interview. And you can hear Truth read on August 9 at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.


A Day with the Editors, A Night at a Reading

LPR Editors Laura Shovan and Jen Grow with Centennial High School students

LPR editors Laura Shovan and Jen Grow (second row, far right) with Centennial High School Advanced Composition students (Photo: Jon Kolp)

It takes audacity and faith in yourself to begin sending work out to publications. We received several submissions from local teens, all for our upcoming Audacity issue. I tracked down these young writers to Corey O’Brien’s Advanced Composition class at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland. A few weeks ago, LPR Fiction Editor Jen Grow and I visited the class.

Here’s what two of the students in the class, Jennifer Swiger and Lucy Font, had to say about that day:

Every other day at 10:15 am, we write. Members of our class settle into seats, open daybooks and write. The girl near the door could be inventing a fantasy world between the lines of her notebook, while the boy in the back of the room could be filling his pages with a mouth-watering description of what he ate for lunch yesterday. Whatever the case may be, we write.

On Friday, however, we listened. Privileged with the presence of two editors from the acclaimed publication Little Patuxent Review, we learned that writing is about more than pen and paper. Seated before us were Editor Laura Shovan and Fiction Editor Jen Grow. A few minutes into their presentation, we began to scribble furiously, jotting down words of inspiration. As any class would, we had questions. Giancarlo Albano paved the way by asking, “How important is the title of a piece?”

From there, Shovan and Grow elaborated on countless aspects of the writing process, from revision to formatting. Their shared experience as editors and their words of wisdom as well as the diverse publications that they brought, ranging from Shovan’s high school literary magazine to the latest issue of LPR, proved to be invaluable.

Shovan and Grow emphasized a key piece of advice: do not give up. They made it clear that rejection is inevitable and, more importantly, that each rejection should strengthen the desire to persevere. An anecdote that made an impact on us involved a class of art students that had been painting diligently only to be instructed by the teacher to flip their canvases and paint over their work. Why not think of writing as a blank canvas, a clean slate? As Jackie Minehart said, “[the story] touches on the point that we have to have confidence in our writing skills and continue to progress in order to get better. If we realize one idea isn’t working, we must move forward.”

The generosity with which Shovan and Grow offered us their time and expertise was appreciated beyond words. As writers, we gained insight into both the process of publishing and the art of writing. We were taught to be fearless, honest with ourselves and, most importantly, true to our craft. We must write and continue to do so. Thank you, LPR!

Corey O'Brien with students

Three Centennial High School poets with teacher Corey O'Brien at LPR's Wisdomwell reading. From left to right, Jen Swiger, Poulomi Banerjee, Corey and Jackie Minehart. (Photo: Eva Quintos Tennant)

We invited Corey and his students to the following Friday’s Wisdomwell reading and were delighted that they took us up on it. The subsequent Monday, the three students who had read their own poems there–Jen Swiger, Poulomi Banerjee and Jackie Minehart–shared their experiences with the rest of the class. From what Corey later told us, it was clear that the evening had made a lasting impression on the students who had accompanied him. Jen Swiger, he said, had summed it up by saying that the Friday night poetry reading was the first time that she felt like a writer. As a both writer and an educator, I have to love that.

Online Editor’s Note: If you’re a teacher, you might be interested in our LPR in the Classroom Program, which offers our print publication at a discounted price. You might also want to read two pieces on how LPR was used in creative writing classes at Howard Community College: “LPR in the Classroom” and “An ‘Excellent’ Experiment.” In addition, our “Concerning Craft” series, particularly the one with input from a young poet (“Concerning Craft: Dylan Bargteil”), could be useful for classroom discussions.

On Being Invisible: Our Elderly

This essay is part of a series inspired by our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. The first one was posted September 2011, and all feature people who have helped make marginalized segments of our world more visible to mainstream America through poetry, prose and visual art.

Compared to others in the developed world, the United States is a young nation. Only 13 percent of us were over the age of 65 in 2010. And only 15 percent of those lived with their children, compared to 65 percent in Japan and 39 percent in Italy. Thus most of us have little day-to-day contact with the demographic that will–sooner or later–include each of us. That the elderly remain invisible to many is not only their loss but also ours.

IM and mother

My mother and me, drinking champagne at her 90th birthday party in Ellicott City, MD (Photo: David Cash)

IM and mother in Altach

My mother and me, a tad younger, in Altach, Austria (Photo: Viktors Jurģis, my father)

When my mother moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me at age 83, it was a revelation. I already knew that she was smart and strong. (Any survivor of two world wars ravaging her homeland, Latvia, was that by definition.) What I didn’t know was how funny and fun-loving she could be once the burden of starting over in a strange land was lifted. The smiling lady who emerged was one that I recognized from old photographs of us as war refugees in Austria. I also didn’t know how hard it was to grow old and face death–my mother did “not go gentle into that good night”–and how much I would miss her once she was gone.

When I heard that Christopher Kennedy, renowned poet and son-in-law of a Latvian childhood friend, had lost his mother as well, I asked him to switch subjects for the essay he had agreed to post here. He was kind enough to go from addressing audacity, the theme of our upcoming issue, to the elderly. Not unrelated topics, as it turns out.

Chris, who heads the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University and has authored poetry collections such as Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death, winner of the 2007 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, was granted a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, which he is using to produce a major work about his late mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s what he said about her final years:

My mother passed away two months ago. Her heart stopped in her sleep. She was 95 years old and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for the last three years of her life. She was, by any standard, an elderly person, but those last three years, difficult and troubling to be sure, allowed her to transcend the limitations age imposed on her.

By that I mean her proclivity toward time travel, which allowed her to experience the present populated with characters from her past. I was at various points her brother Tom, just home from reconnaissance over Anzio; her brother Joe, the star athlete; and her father William, the deputy sheriff. My job was to be a good character actor, slipping in and out of my roles as fluidly as she slipped from 2009 to 1945.

Of course, this was the upside. My first experience of her dementia, which I knew to be more than a “senior moment,” was when I was summoned to her assisted living facility. I was told that she had a vitamin deficiency and was dehydrated. I drove her to the ER. On the way, she told me very emphatically that she was not pregnant.

As she was 92 at the time, I had no reason to doubt her. But there was no irony in her voice; in fact, she was trembling. I began to ask questions about her concerns, and it became clear that she thought she was a teenager and I was driving her to the hospital to have the baby. She told me again that she couldn’t be pregnant. “I’ve never even dated,” she insisted. I wrote the following prose poem about the incident:

Memory Unit: Pregnancy Scare

On the way to the hospital, my 92 year-old mother tells me she can’t be pregnant. I’ve never even dated, she says. I don’t know what to say. I explain that she’s deficient. Vitamin B. Precautionary measures. But when I check her in, the woman at the desk says she’ll need to go to the fifth floor, the psych ward, where she spent a few weeks the year before. The doctor asks her to disrobe, and she tells him she’s not pregnant. He seems impatient, unwilling to humor her. I tell her it’s all right. No one thinks you’re pregnant, I say. The doctor excuses himself. He’s red-faced, impatient. A nurse appears with a hospital gown, tells my mother to put it on. Why? my mother asks, near tears. I take the gown from the nurse and set it down on the metal table next to where my mother sits. She’ll be fine, I say. The nurse seems about to speak, then thinks better of it. She looks at the doctor. They leave the two of us alone. Now what? my mother asks. I don’t know, I say. She says, the least you could do is ask me to dance.

Christopher Kennedy

Christopher Kennedy with his mother and father in a suburb of Syracuse, NY

I knew in that moment that my mother, as I had known her, was gone. Over the next three years, I learned about numerous other selves contained within her. I found out about the good speller, the shy teenager, the waitress, the bride, the young mother, the victim, the widow, the grandmother, among many other facets of the woman who gave me life. I gained a perspective on the elderly that I would never have had were it not for my mother’s illness. Interacting with those various selves gave me the opportunity to know more about my mother even as she lost more and more of the world around her.

A few days after my mother died, I prepared for her calling hours by helping to put together a photo collage. As I sifted through old pictures, I was struck by how happy she seemed. Whether it was walking down the street with her waitress friends or walking down the aisle with my father, there was a subtle joy that I had failed to see when she was alive. It occurred to me that I hadn’t been able to properly perceive her until I saw all those different selves, clustered together, smiling back at me, forcing me to acknowledge the depth of her person and the richness of her life.

Though my own mother remained as sharp as the proverbial tack until her death at age 91, medications administered to ease her pain took their toll. She became uncontrollably agitated at the hospital, and orderlies subdued her by strapping her into a straightjacket–baby blue, patterned with small pink flowers. It was a terrible time for both of us, but I still smile when I recall an incident that occurred after she was admitted to the ER for the last time. Lying there, doped up on OxyContin, plastered with Fentanyl patches, battered and bruised from a fall, she reached up and smartly slapped the face of a male nurse who had lifted her gown to assess the extent of her injuries. “How dare you!” she said.

Our elderly have fascinating stories to tell, and the telling benefits everyone. Whether through journal therapy, literary publications like Persimmon Tree or Passager that are set aside for seniors or more mainstream outlets, the more experienced among us can share their wit and wisdom and gain a greater sense of self-worth in the process.

And lest it be said that those substantially over 65 cannot compete with their younger counterparts, nationally acclaimed novelist Pauls Toutonghi, who worked with me in writing the original “On Being Invisible” piece, compiled what could be construed as an answer to The New Yorker’s “20 under 40”: his own “8 over 80,” part of “In Praise of Older Men (and Women) Writers.” Not to steal his thunder, but here’s the list:

I’m sure somewhere there are comparable lists of poets and visual artists.

Note: Since this piece was completed, another mother’s life was lost: this time, the mother of our Communications Coordinator, Eva Quintos Tennant. Emedita “Medy” Esguerra Quintos was born in Cotabato City in the Philippines in 1931 and died January 23 in a retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. She raised four children and touched countless lives as a physician, both in the Philippines and the United States. Defying a terminal cancer diagnosis since 1966 and fighting the effects of a recent, debilitating stroke, her final accomplishments, as itemized in Eva’s eulogy, included learning how to use Skype as well as trouncing the competition at Bingo and Mahjong.

Meet the Neighbors: Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

A journal like the Little Patuxent Review requires a vibrant literary and artistic community to thrive–and even survive. In appreciation of the cultural organizations around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” where we provide you with some personal introductions.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

Please meet the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, residing on High Ridge Road in Ellicott City, MD and frequently found staging productions at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park.

CSC came into being in 2002 when a handful of artists decided to produce some Shakespeare that wasn’t stuffy. It quickly grew into a regional voice for new approaches to classic theater and is now the largest non‐union professional Shakespeare company in America, reaching 8000 audience members and students each year.

In 2007, CSC represented Maryland in the Shakespeare in Washington festival. CSC staff have also held leadership positions in the international Shakespeare Theatre Association. Closer to home, Howard County, MD honored CSC’s Founding Artistic Director, Ian Gallanar, with a 2010 Howie Award.

Our editor, Laura Shovan, shares her most recent experience there:

My children and I are walking arm in arm down a steep hill. It’s a dark summer night, and we’ve got the giggles. A traffic cone appears out of nowhere, nearly tripping me and sending my 14- and 11-year-olds into hysterics. I apologize to the other people navigating this quarter-mile walk in the dark, but no one seems to mind. Everyone is in great spirits after seeing the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).

I wasn’t sure that I’d convince my teenager to attend the outdoor performance this summer. My husband and I have been taking both kids to CSC’s productions for several years. It’s become a family tradition. We pack a picnic, park our car at the Ellicott City courthouse and take a free shuttle up the hill to the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, where the Howard County based Shakespeare troupe presents its summer repertory.

Typically, I give the kids a little prep before we see a show. Once we’ve selected which of the two productions we’re going to see, we’ll read that chapter in Stories from Shakespeare by Nicola Baxter. Often, we’ll go to the library and borrow a volume of the Emmy-winning children’s series Shakespeare: The Animated Tales.

The bare bones of a plot are all the kids need to follow the action. We settle in for our picnic, enjoy the show before the show–especially if it’s stage fighting–and wait for the sun to set and the company to take the stage. The actors and production team make enough magic for all of us to become wrapped up in the play.

Attending theater outdoors, where there are no curtains and no true backstage, is a different experience than seeing Shakespeare produced in a formal theater. I’ll never forget a fall performance of Macbeth, where the audience followed the actors through the PFI and the surrounding grounds. During the banquet scene, we sat at cloth-covered picnic tables. When Lady Macbeth apologized to her guests for her husband’s erratic behavior, she was apologizing directly to us.

The community atmosphere is part of what draws us back to these productions, year after year. When we attended The Complete Works… two weekends ago, we bumped into neighbors and met their friends, who not only happen to be the CSC’s set and lighting designers but also had a son who played percussion with our son in middle school. Then, we helped wish a stranger a happy birthday. And after the play, there was that lovely, laugh-filled stroll down the hill with most of the audience, all of us headed back to our parked cars.

It’s because of this family tradition that my son had been looking forward to reading Romeo and Juliet in middle school this past year. He’d only seen Shakespeare performed, never studied it formally. He was less than impressed. Thus, the reluctance to come with us this summer.

I promised him that The Complete Works… would be funny, something like a Monty Python version of the Bard. The play is a send-up of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, with all of them performed in shortened form during the show by only three actors. Granted, the histories are condensed to a three-minute football game with the British crown as the football, but that’s part of the fun. This isn’t Shakespeare for insiders. Like all of CSC’s productions, it’s Shakespeare that invites everyone in.

Partway through The Complete Works…, I turned to look at my teen, who was laughing hysterically at Adam Long’s, Daniel Singer’s and Jess Winfield’s parody of Romeo and Juliet. No doubt about it, we will all be coming back next year.

In subsequent installments of “Meet the Neighbors,” we will introduce you to the Howard Country Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) and–at bit further down the road–The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.