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Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity
By Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
How She Knew
spill (v) 2. (of liquid) flow over the edge of its container. "Some of the wine spilled onto the floor."
SYNONYMS: overflow, flow, pour, run, slop, slosh, splash
she lit a candle for Tuesday. she lit a candle for sweat. she lit a candle when you woke up and the sheets were wet. she lit a candle for lovers. she lit a candle for friends. she lit a candle for maybe and for sometimes and for depends. she poured some water for cooling. she poured some water for sleep. she drank some water for the things she said she would do and forgot that week. she offered food to the corners and to the mourners and the ghosts. she planted grass for the exiles and the stateless and the hosts. she chanted peace to the pilgrims and the playmates and the pimps. she chewed on glass for the mothers and never even winced. she prostrated before the teacups and the teachers and the books.
and it is still it is still it is still
it is still just as bad as it looks.
let the bathtub overflow with hot water and quilt pieces. let the grit of everyday settle to sandbar. let the soap get lost in love letters. soak out their lying blue blood. let the salt of the tears she was saving and the sweat she used up scour her skin like the tough love of black teachers. let porcelain become slate against her back.
she doesn't care.
let it seep into her hair with the whispered blood of moontime. let her hold her breath for now, submerge for evidence, eureka. let her sink into the sum of wet mosaic over brown. immersed in the material of what? what now?
the same crunch the same stem the same sweet green wetness again.
her heart is a pot full of greens to chew and swallow all the nourishment she knows.
she used to salt it. overcook it. contaminate it with swine. she used to leave it on the stove all day and forget it half the time. she even cut it with molasses once and washed it down with wine. why isn't love red like it should be. her growing heart. ain't flesh and muscle like it could be.
just all that deep bright green.
she thought she heard dogs barking. she knew she heard crows. she sensed a plague of locusts crowding her windows. she remembered how fast and choking ivy could grow. she expected poison sweets from the neighbors and toxic rain from above. anticipated anthrax in her laundry. awaited everything but love.
in her ears violence was biblical. in her eyelids lightning was fate. in her heart staying here one more moment was a fatal mistake. but attack in its historic signature requires all strings attached. so she continued baking the cookies. (convinced it would be her last batch.)
there is a crawling part of every day. the part that doesn't leave the ground, slides under all the affirmations, bills paid, slips unshown, good girl status tentatively unshattered. there is part of the breathing that doesn't need that either, somewhere at the base of the lungs. steamship fuel that pushes on her day, the part of her that doesn't know how to walk with the full sensation of the particles on the floor, the dredge in the river, the dust of what happens in fake human heaven, the sense to want something else.
whoever thought of an upside-down cake? her fingertips graze the razor can edge. the swimming pool pineapples float in sweet. and the weight of the cake will crush them, she thinks. will grow dense fill the pan and crush them, she knows. like the heavier heaviness of days. she absently slices her finger, adding red into the yellow, and cries. and what did they ever do? it hurts. and what did they ever do?
was that her baby's skin? what water did. what waste. what fire did. what thrown-away machine. could not be. this could not be the smooth the kissed the cherished the Vaselined skin she would scald her life off for. was this the sweetest face she had sacrificed sleep and sense for? was this the child she brought here? and why?
she did not cry. she did not touch. it was too much. the texture of her loss.
it's the center of her forehead. like someone stole the light and brought it back so bright it makes her dizzy. makes her skull grow cracked and break. makes her heartbeat halo heaven hardly breathe.
like the sun sought her out and shaped a laser just to clean out every decision she made. when she closes her eyes the walls of her brain are infrared and pulsing. someone is sounding the alarm. beating the bell of her brain. and all she can hear is no.
it was a mirror. she thought it was a mirror. it had always been a mirror. but every now and then something wasn't right. something was in the mirror that wasn't back here. was that a book? a mug of tea? a paintbrush? how did they get there into her sight but out of her reach? and that woman. almost the same but eyes on fire, smile almost inviting. what is she doing with my only face?
the photograph blurs black and white in her hand. the edges are marked with the date like evidence. the image looks like outer space the splotches like a gerbil astronaut. she wonders has anyone been to the moon or to the inner reaches of a black woman's womb. it could all be a trick of paper and eye, a race to see who fakes it best.
the printout shines, bending her sweaty hands, reflecting her fingernails, grooving into a slight indent. she needs a piece of string. a miniature clothesline to hang this thing. a mobile to turn it around. a terrestrial angle must be found. she feels like she's floating away. and wonders if that's how she got this way. being blurry and captured and small.
she turns the image upside down, holds it up to the ceiling, drops it down on the ground and tries to walk down the hall. her hands on her neck, she stands there until she falls and curls her knees into her chest. is this the result of doing her best. is this the leak of her love. or is this the self she is thinking of when she cannot sleep at night. the tiny unstill life in black and white. blurred glimpse of a dark held world. the technician had looked for phallic signs and failed. so he said it's a girl.
the first time i thought of you, you were swimming, towards you, through me. first time i thought i was drowning in a world that needed you in it or it would disappear. first time i knew you existed the rest of the history of the world popped like a bubble unready unworthy and my body wanted only future, only you. the first time i felt you move we were deep underwater under something built to keep us under and i couldn't see anything but I understood there was something above everything. above everything despite everything I would find fresh air and breathe again. above everything despite everything I would free you. my best idea yet.
could they open her legs into scream, cut her belly open and reach. can they do whatever they want to do to bring the baby through the breach through the gap of what she knows and what the kid is here to teach. does she matter? is it money at her middle is it mystery or mud. is it meaning or mistake. is it proof of passed-down blood? are her birthing hips a blessing her bewildered brain a dud. what is she doing here? is she water wreck or witness is she push or hush or thud. when the universe is opened will she last?
was she dipped in paint. split open like achilles. where was she weak? she looked at her body and saw only pores, only wet spaces, vessel, opening. she was whole. was she. born or made. was she possible? she looked at her fingertips for a seam. pinched her skin in case it was all a dream. was she real? the new female being, first of her kind, couldn't believe herself.CHAPTER 2
How She Spelled It
spill (v) 3. (with reference to the contents of something) empty out or be emptied out onto a surface.
"Passengers' baggage had spilled out of the hold."
it actually lifts her out of the bed. breathing or something like it. water in her veins. salt. spirit. rush. she has no one to describe it to. she would say wave crash but she has not seen the ocean. would say lightning. would say wait and come back, i'll show you. the next day she draws it in flour on the floor, the stars she has seen with her body, the stars she holds, they are children. and the shapes she makes are the shapes of her hands in every direction. she doesn't have the word fractal, she is inside a kaleidoscope where color merges to nothing she has ever seen. flour on her dirt floor on her brown skin. the only thing bright enough to make it real.
because she was a cave. papyrus. she was inventing a language. herself. she was lighting up the darkness. her skin. however dull, the person who holds the tool can say i am not an animal. can she? can say there is control. there is reason in what she feels. cannot. say that and be heard. she is not. an animal. so she brights it in the darkness. her skin. so she spells it in the tomb. her covered arms. her battered womb. she makes a place to right her walls again. she tilts and wields it expertly. her pain. the spell she scratches in her skin. her name.
i am wrong. she told herself. born wrong. or more like retrieved. walk wrong, talk wrong, even now. she grieved. and who in the hell set things up like this? then she wrote it in the salt spilled on the table. wrong. she wrote it in the flour on the floor. wrong. she wrote it in chicken blood on the stump. and in grease on the counter. and she circle dialed it rotary home to her mother. and she postcard wrote it across to her sister. and she wrote it on her own wrists with toothpaste that night and smeared it over her teeth. and she bit herself wondering about sinews, worrying about the palimpsest of veins. but in the end she was too vain because when she spelled wrong in the steam in the mirror it was not her name.
she put the words in his breakfast. wiped the spoon with the ink, stirred it deep into black tea. the words were blue and she pressed them into the china saucer underneath his teacup the delicate bowl before she put the oatmeal in. the words were sins that she allowed herself in the morning. imagining they would realign his brain rewrite his thoughts unstain her life. the words were hearses. not curses. just designed to carry him away. she named him what he was. so gentle he would swallow it and not choke. her wrought written loops of language printed careful on the whiteness sweet as poison. before the sugar and the milk. she loved the soft blue ocean of wishing he would die. burying it in the heavy oats. she imagined the blue of her own bruises spreading daily on his insides until his muscles could not take it and his bones grew weak and bent. she wrote vitamin hate in his breakfast. receipt for how her life was spent.
she just took a corner of one piece of paper and scribbled in blue ink and loops what she meant. and then she folded it up and ate it. and then the next day she did it again. and after eight months she danced and looked you in the eye. and told you with her deep blue tongue that fiber could do wonders. and something was coming. she could say it with her gut and release it rather joyfully. and what do you know. we are all full of it now.
first she would have to clear the table. put away the brightly colored miscellany on the central surface of her lying life. first she would have to admit the table was there before she was. first she would have to sit at the table and watch relationships fall apart and the table stay together. first she would have to trust that a table can be strong enough for a question. she would have to sit there wondering how a table got to be stronger than her. she would have to move the kitchen table to her office and meditate on that. how much love does wood absorb. she would have to ask the oldest tree she knows. how do you turn paper into food?
she tied paper to her wrists with rubber bands, kissed ink and sat down. pulled elastic over her ankles for what it meant. eyelash staples broke and rusted daily off her face. collated and cross. she referenced her elliptical contents monthly and wondered, bent at the edge of her bed, how her thin-paged life, her black-type days amounted to only this.
she had thought to hold the question whole, with hairpins and her hands, until you got here. thought she could stay it with staples and standing still. surely housework could wait. surely heaven and handbasket would grant her a few moments to hold it together. after all her waiting, surely this. but surely is nothing and it fractured slowly, the question, in her patient mended heart until her bone remembered who to punish, broke away from her stoic knowing and began to stab small ventricles of trust. you didn't come home. and this was not eden. she smashed your chest of drawers to smithereens.
she sands them out. the grooves they used to walk in. the steps they once stepped into. the time they wasted here. she sawdust saves them. the crooked mornings the creaking nightwalks. the pacing evenings. she smooths them out. redeeming something returning woodsign asking for heart pine to hear her out. she won't remember the routine wreckage she used to walk through barefoot here. she sands it out.
a framed family picture is a phantom. it is a fountain of glass to cut her now. all this time believing that glass is water gets caught in her throat like the sanded-down future of what it is possible to say. she is so smooth now. disabused of how what is was supposed to look like. now that the pane is a million drops. now that she has dropped the frame of what she thought she was making onto the floor where bare feet sacrifice and smile.
so she stood steeple-straight in the shards still in proud shock of her quick work. the living room now rainbowed glass collected on the floor, the mosaic of how mad she had been. she almost laughed out loud but she was too breathless at this room, more broken than she. no picture frame could contain her now. she was prism reborn. she was sharp refracted everything.
not everybody knows my name, but everyone knows what I taste like. salt after malt liquor. vault where the soul is kept. everyone knows my sweat under their tongue when they try to say free market. wet wild wick when they try to spark it on the fourth of july again. mildew of what I do for you. everyone knows the bloom of the brackish floor of the living room America. i taste like hysteria sedated with a case of blues. i taste metallic like tap shoes Morse coding no. i taste like dirty city snow that can't stay white. i taste like your morning breath after waking up all night afraid your stuff is gone. i taste like sparrow song and hunger, taste like blackened coal mined lungs. i taste like military blunders limping up and down the street. i taste like used rag fermentation that gets used again another week. can i speak?CHAPTER 3
How She Left
spill (v) 4. (of a number of people) move out of somewhere quickly.
"Students began to spill out of the building."
SYNONYMS: stream, pour, surge, swarm, flood, throng, crowd
it shows up on Saturday. purple and loud. tender as a plum and just in time for visitors. it shows up on Sunday red sea of vanity. veins and tributaries unreadying church. it shows up on Monday gray unprofessional routine, relentless and ready to work. it shows up on Tuesday totally unforgiveable immune now to Advil interpreted as shirk. it shows up on Wednesday evolving and ashy from all the concealer attempted to cloak. it shows up on Thursday with flowers and candy and jewelry and liquor to make it a joke. it shows up on Friday but she can't see it. she can't see it. it shows up on Friday but she can't see it. she walked out the door over mirrors she broke.
she could breathe. that much. she could breathe. and maybe her ribs felt it too much but it was there. and she had to believe that the network of microscopic balloon cells in her chest had a say and could collaborate with oxygen to make some small decision called live. she had more to give, she decided, as smoke ran the distance of her blood. telling her she should walk more she should breathe more deeply she should cherish crisp presence over warmth. she was smiling as a breeze brushed her cheek like a matte page out of a fall catalog full of plaid she could not now or never before afford. and her eyes watered like this. like an ancestor kiss. and the laughter crackled out from the embers of her red engine heart and she laughed and laughed at her lesson. what an early winter wonder that it took burning the whole damn house down to find out.
no one took a photograph but I see her. one foot on a lower step, one still on the porch. looking behind her, hands gripping the newest definition of what her hands could carry. her elbow points towards the still where moonshine and her man will drown their disbelief later in a proof so strong you'd think it would be clean. but she is a witness, it is simply mean. fermenting as it has been under their bed and freezing the synapses in her head until now. if she could keep this posture she wouldn't trade it for all the hurried motions just before nor the years she hustled around trying to convince that man she was a person, a soft place, an asset, something other than a drum for his drunk tantrum nights and increasing afternoons. she kept the spoon and tied to it the cleanest sheet and wrapped it around the last of the dried meat and the bread she had baked her decision in. as the bread rose she filled out her skin and her body got soft and got full again and her bones said this house would not win she was free she was getting out.
Excerpted from Spill by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsA Note xi
How She Knew 1
How She Spelled It 17
How She Left 31
How She Survived until Then 45
What She Did Not Say 61
What He Was Thinking 75
Where She Ended Up 91
The Witnesses the Wayward the Waiting 111
How We Know 125
The Way 141
What People are Saying About This
"With Spill, Alexis Pauline Gumbs pushes the boundaries of art making and scholarship, doing so with rigor, sure-footed conviction, and an open heart."
"In this luminous, heartbreaking work, Alexis Pauline Gumbs highlights the art of Black feminist theorizing, showing us how Black feminism lives in the hair and legs and wombs and choices of individual Black women."