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Lines of Thinking, June 2017: Portland

By Tom Manley, President

Portland, Oregon—my adopted hometown and the birthplace of two of our daughters—was already on my mind because of the murderous attack on the MAX Line a few days before.  The train and the stop were very familiar. We had used both, as had our friends and children. Perhaps because of this, it was hard at first to make sense of the violence that had erupted there. Another racist emboldened by the calculated, manipulative rhetoric of a fanatical leader. I shuddered, but then remembered I was headed to a bedroom bookshelf to select a poem about which to write.

The two books I pulled down were side by side; there was nothing else to link them. The books were not organized alphabetically, nor by author, or by genre; they were not sorted by height or an OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Designer) spine color system. They had been packed and unpacked and then shelved straight from the box when we moved. I had not touched them since.  It was a surprise to me that each connected to Portland.

*

One of the two books was Lunatic, by Crystal Williams. She was teaching at Reed College (in Portland); I think I bought the book at a reading at Powell’s Books. Now, at least a dozen years later, I let it fall open in my hands, no thumbing or page flipping. The title of the poem I had marked before caught my eye and my breath.

 

On Cops & Color

Crystal Williams

 

DETROIT (1987)

Julani was driving his dad’s jag.

Methuselah wasn’t so old, we laughed.

“You shoulda been stopped

for driving that thing.”

 

OHIO (1991)

Everyone knows if you are black,

don’t get stopped in Ohio—especially

not speeding, which we weren’t.

 

Those flashing lights panicked our eyes,

made our hearts pound like prey.

The Trooper’s inquisition tattered

our middle class quilts—

his mouth: a thousand nesting moths.

 

One mile down the road he stopped us again.

Saul’s five foot five inches grew into an

escaped convict from Florida who was six

foot two until the radio-voice told the Trooper

people cannot conjure themselves

into criminals with bigger bones.

 

D.C. (1993)

I am guilty. These are not my people,

them with their narrowing eyes & slouched pants

& sitting on stoops & go-go bands. But, then,

there was Philip & something not unlike love.

 

New York (1995)

It hit me in Chinatown, where I was lost

amid a sea of color; Cops know where they are.

Eric got shot in the back

by his blue brother, undercover uniform

too authentic.

 

T.V. (1998)

An expose tells: the looming destruction

of a city, its fate bound in festering accusations

& tensions thick as blood-pudding. Each side

to be believed—a little. Sometimes.

 

HERE (1998)

Julani blacked-out

our gibes.

 

Saul won’t talk of Ohio,

says he is where he is.

 

Philip recounted strip searches:

his buttocks stretched , his balls

hanging. The fire looping him

was not desire & his eyes made me cry.

 

Eric sued the city & his brother.

His family & faith are gone.

 

I am guilty. Afraid

of the line I toe. I hope

when the day comes,

the cop will see me

& understand

whatever act I committed

could be no worse than this I carry,

than where I stand, teetering

between bones & brain.

I hope the jury considers this

was never my intention.

*

The second book was New and Selected Poems by Thomas Lux, whom I had met in Claremont when he won the Kingston Tufts Poetry Award. “A Little Tooth” has been read and published many times. But it wasn’t the poem that grabbed my attention when I opened to the page the book volunteered. Instead, it was a 3x5-inch white-on-black image, chart-like with markings, on thin printout paper. It took me several seconds to understand I was holding an ultrasound image of my then-in utero daughter, Chedin. The technician had handed it to us after the exam, and on our way out of the hospital, not far from the MAX Line stop, I must have slipped it into the page after the ultrasound appointment. I like to think we read it together.

 

A Little Tooth

Thomas Lux

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,

and four, and five, then she wants some meat

directly from the bone. It’s all

 

over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall

in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet

talker on his way to jail. And you

 

your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue

nothing. You did, you loved, your feet

are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.


 

“Lines of Thinking," a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.