She Is Still Burning 6 (March 2001)

I decided to re-publish all the instalments of “She Is Still Burning” in their original form, not only because they give a vivid history of the times, but also because the contributions were too good to reside only on the Digital Library’s Wayback Machine. The “Harriet’s Home Page” I’m so gleefully announcing on International Women’s Day in 2001 was a teeny webspace that came with my e-mail address. When I switched internet providers, it disappeared and so did “She Is Still Burning.”

The publishing technology I was experimenting with in 2001 seems archaic now, but the writing is still alive. Which makes me wish I’d spent less time struggling with computers and more time propped up in bed with my pen and notebook.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #6
8 March 2001, International Women’s Day

“The road to a friend’s house is never long.”
– Danish proverb

Dear Friends,

In the past five weeks, I seem to have leapt on my war pony and headed off in all directions at once. The result being that there’s now half-written or half-assembled material enough for two installments of Burning, ideas enough for six more … and I’m facing my usual problem of organizing the altogether-too-many-ideas.

In the meantime, the Bush Tank continued to roll on, with “test and provoke” military exercises in the Middle East and onslaughts on no-longer-protected wilderness in the US. Is there any life form these people intend to leave standing?

But I do have one victory announcement: She Is Still Burning has finally made it to the web. … My hope is that “Harriet’s Home Page” will attract more readers and writers to the She Is Still Burning dialogue.

The first writer so attracted turned out to be my brother. The website had no sooner gone up on February 28th than I received the following:

“Would you be willing to put some info onto your web site for us? Here’s the deal. We have five extra dwarf hamsters, free to good homes or snake farms. The blessed event happened this morning just before Sarah went to school. This time she pulled the males from the nursery, so the little critters have a chance of living. We can ship worldwide if we can find a source for dry ice. Instructions for resuscitation will be included in each shipment, but no warranty is made, expressed or implied, international or otherwise.

“Please have your people contact our people as soon as convenient. Remember, supplies are limited, but we expect another delivery from our suppliers in 30 days or less.” [Signed “BAB,” short for “Bad-Ass Brother,” alias Jim Ellenberger]

Well, what could I say? I wrote back, “Sure, glad to help out.” And then didn’t hear anything more on the subject until a recent communique from Sarah Ellenberger indicated that the hamsters are now “growing hair” and “are cute.” I think this means the free-rodent offer no longer holds.

And now welcome to the sixth installment (that’s half a dozen! I can’t believe it) of She Is Still Burning.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Seven Signs for Home: Oakland, California” by Camille Norton
•”New York City: Ritual with Trembling” by Jane Picard
•”I am not a river” by Jeannette Muzima


SEVEN SIGNS FOR HOME: OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA

by Camille Norton

TURRETS, BEHIND THEM. Shadow of the cement factory. Shadow of ConAgra and the low-lying cement boxes of the toxic waste facility. High up on its ashy pole an electricity box crackles as it feeds the quarter with light. At night, I walk by that light to the cement island at the foot of the bridge to Alameda. I walk with the dog. There’s a store there that sells cheap goods and comestibles 24-hours a day. Behind the counter, the sign reads, “Cashier never has more than $50.00 in change at any one time.” I know about the drop box behind the counter from my past life as a cashier. Now I like to watch my image projected by the video cameras that film the customers and the clerks. I look foreign to myself, potentially dangerous or comical, depending on the angle of light. Last night, as I was walking home, a thin, hunched man in a black cloth coat pulled up beside me on his little bicycle. I felt afraid but was too polite to show it. He nodded hello briskly, then pedaled along down Glascock Street, going home I realized, to the tent city in the pallet yards, with his can of Miller High Life tucked under his arm. I pulled the gate shut, rolling it to its lock, as I do each time I enter or exit the compound. Living among the poor one must have a gate. This one slides on wheels.

PATCHES OF STANDING WATER. Deep in the recess of the yard I found a bucket of pond scum growing green fur and oily lights like swirls of paisley. A chemical wash the dog drinks when I’m not looking. I overturned it with my boot, defying the inevitability of sick dog in the night, myself on the stairs in striped pajamas and overcoat at 3 A.M. The yard burgeons with potted trees. Misshapen lemons one must never eat. Sickly oranges bulging in tumorous sacs. Basins of basil so polluted with cement grit and truck exhaust that they are coated grey and limp, even after rain.

THE CANAL. PEOPLE WHO SLEEP BY THE CANAL. The warehouses are secured behind bolted metal plates. A German Shepherd sleeps with his head on his paws in a dirt lot bounded by barbed wire. The canal churns between inlet and inlet. A barge belonging to the Fire Department, City of San Francisco, sloshes in its berth. Tiny irradiated fish bob against the muddy bottom between rays of starlight and iron ore filings that poke up from the canal floor. The bay moves us, displaces us and still we hunch down in place. At night, the old neighborhood, the one that has disappeared, breathes. Wooden houses sink deeper into their pilings. The bus people, who move their bus every night to a new corner in order to evade arrest by the police, sink deeper into their sleeping bags. They are the most discreet denizens of the quarter, as quiet as the dead and as invisible. The two who are lovers draw closer, imagining life on the road. In the compound behind the locked gate, the painter in studio #24 draws the blinds. We can no longer admire the orchids arranged in rows by the windows. Crimson. White. Crimson. Magnetic blue hybrid. A wall of books giving way to a wall of abstraction. All things are private now, contained. The man on the top floor of 2889 takes another pain tablet, running his tongue against the wound in his mouth. Alone and in pain and getting older. But one must never show any of that to other people. We smile when we pass each other on the stairs. A sympathetic greeting now and again. So many of us sleep alone in large spaces we fill with books and paintings and computers. Out of doors, the illegals sleep in crowds. Four to a bed in the pallet yard. In the morning, the cotton batting is rolled up, packed behind a wall under plastic sheeting. Then the men go out into the street, walled up inside the mother tongue, walking one by one to the day-laborer pick-up corner on International Boulevard.

PEOPLE IN CROWDS. Day labor consists of — if you can dig this — cleaning toilets at the old stadium; tearing down dry wall in a building scheduled for demolition; painting a dentist’s new office; weeding a garden in North Berkeley; slopping out the port-o-potties at a construction sight in San Leandro; stuffing tube after tube of sausage casing with chicken and herbs; rolling layers of brown cotton into futons special ordered by Buddhists; raking mulch; raking gravel; sweeping the ashes out of the crematorium; driving cars in and out of the car wash, towel-drying the cars, hand-waxing the cars. All labor performed for $3.00 an hour. Under the table. No questions asked. No stories told.

PEOPLE DANCING ALONE. But it’s only cold El Norte talking through their bones. The ones who didn’t get work wear thin-as-a-sheet bomber jackets and high-top Converse sneakers with no arches. Elvis Presley pompadour hairdos slicked back with water. The thing is, you keep moving. Keep moving so the cops don’t stop you. Keep clean, alert; learn how to carry yourself so you don’t look hungry. Nothing free here, amigo. Little girls push by with their babies in supermarket carriages piled high with paper diapers and formula in cans. Thirteen. Fourteen. They flick their eyes at you, as if to say, “I got a man.” But you can tell just by looking that the man is gone back where he came from because nothing is free here.

RAILROAD TRACKS. The tracks in the quarter are out of use except once on Fridays when the Iconco train eases out of its stall and chugs slowly along Glascock Street to Jack London Square. A comical sight, a train without a caboose and only one driver, a man who has to crane his neck out of a side window in order to yell at the dogs and cats who linger on the tracks. Every once in a while, after the train passes through, old Oakland begins to speak, Oakland just after the second war, when the quarter belonged to African-American men and women who grew cabbages and chard in the bright sun near the canal. In those days, you could ride the train downtown for five cents, eight cents roundtrip. No fences then except low picket fences to keep dogs out of gardens; no warehouses; and no freeway, just the road to the bridge crossing over to the island, where no black folks were welcome. If you were black, you belonged on this side of the canal and built your wooden house high in case of floods. You built a root cellar under the house because you never knew about the lean times, when they would come or what they would bring. Today, when you dig a little under the spoiled dirt, you find canning jar lids and smashed glass glittering under the topsoil; a bit of red cloth; a child’s top lost long ago, corroding now under the chipped blue enamel but spinning free as the weight of time slides clear. Then someone kicks it aside, someone new to the place. The top drifts away like trash. Then it knocks and blows the length of a city block before it disappears once and for all into the island trash that blows all the way into the bay.


note from Camille Norton: “I write poems about landscapes under erasure, about microcosms, lost objects, and the sound of white noise as it is lyrically distilled and remade as something we might use. I teach literature at The University of the Pacific, where my students do not know who Louis Armstrong is, let alone Simone de Beauvoir — so I work as a cultural transmitter. I do not watch television, but listen to the radio on long commutes between Stockton and Oakland, California, where I live in an old factory next to a canal.”


NEW YORK CITY: RITUAL WITH TREMBLING

There is eloquence in repetition
saying it once then again
a jolt to the spine, then
in its wake a trembling
a trembling again

I dreamed I was following
a trail through New York City, a trail
of cornmeal and ashes
a trail that wound
through a marketplace
where women in black hats
kept moving in and out of doorways
changing their minds. One said
she was pretty, she said she was bitter
kept turning away, her hands full of snakes.
The other one said: Watch out for me
I’m in the field of your desire
and I go for the heart. She handed me
a necklace of rosehips and thorns.

There are no mystics these days
only performers in catastrophic states,
drama obscuring the real issues.

We go where our love takes us
trembling like two small beasts
returned to the wild, the question
is: will we bond?
Why mark it by saying in Love?
Why not just say, they took to the trees.

Morning falls apart into day.
Bodies collapsed in doorways
rise and reassemble. Bones
grind into place. Geared up
against last night’s resistance
they go where they are told to go.

I see boomboxes carried on shoulders
ringed with fading light. Sounds
as bright as Johannesburg diamonds.
Real citizens band radio. Angels
with soot-covered wings, home girls
dance like young geese, their
arms thrown out slapping the air.
Flight divas practicing their V for-ma-tion.

I see people lining up to buy
art and brown-skinned babies from Peru.
Women lean weary into small faces
with upturned mouths. they croon
dreamy, they croon tremolo, they sing:
nothing human can thrive here anymore.

I see a relay of small lights
inside crack buildings, capsizing bodies
staggering through doorways,
men sitting in a room counting numbers
taking names, compulsive orderliness
obsessive, repetitive fixation
upon minute detail.

Darkness immanent I sing
for the abandoned I sing
for the outcast.

Freefall at 5000 feet. The heart bursts
into five fragments, a bloodline
from New York City to San Francisco, a pulse
from coast to coast, arterial repetition.
a constant rocking locomotion
a side to side commotion
there and not there, sex and desire
darkening the landscape like a shadow play.

We are side by side, two faces
on a train. You close your
eyes and I dream of you, your mouth
on my lips. Blood and cinders.
I think about all those people, all
that energy jamming the face
of the earth. I imagine an elephant’s metabolism, this
train moving slowly out of the station.

Now raise your hand love, and let the dead walk.
So that the soul I love that lies
sleeping, couched in all its
clumsy maneuvers may rise. Heart’s
desire headed homeward. Lover
every journey begins with a refrain
a heart crossing a body of water.

I feel the pull of the beast
in front of me pacing in its cage.
If I free the beast, will it
put out the pain
with the light of its tongue?

We are waiting for the signal, for the
GO that sets us running.
We engage like each car
with the next, singular but connected
with a purpose, a mission, a motive.
Like two halves of a moment in time.

— Jane Picard


 

I am not a river
you can launch your gorgeous body on
to swim from one bend
to the next

I am an ocean
between two continents
one death the other life
if you have no particular
destination
you may float on me
anytime

and always

                           — Jeannette Muzima

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