My Statue of Liberty, Part I

This is the first of two poems that I wrote in response to an image shared with me.  Visit my blog post “Truth, Lie, Liberty, and The Two Ladies” for more.

 

My statue of liberty

Ain’t no lady in green

Sitting in a harbor

Offerin’ false promise;

Not when I’m here

Chained and shackled

And an old man’s whip

Is slashing my back

 

My statue of  liberty

Don’t make false requests

Like calling for “wretched souls

yearnin’ to breathe free”;

Not when I’m here

In the old man’s field

Choking on air

That stinks of bondage

 

My statue of  liberty

Wouldn’t hold

No light of freedom

That I can’t see

That don’t lead me;

Not when I’m here

Runnin’ in the dark

For my life

And that old man’s dog

Is hunting me

 

No sir

That ain’t my statue

And her words ain’t for me–

Not when I’m here

Swingin ’from that old man’s tree

COPYRIGHT 2012 © ELIZABETH MICHAUD JOHN.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

My Statue of Liberty, Part II

This is the second of two poems based on a picture that I received.  See my post “Truth, Lies, Liberty, and The Two Ladies” for more.

 

They be talkin’ about a lady,

She got her hair done up in ‘rows,

But she hold her head up high

‘Cause there’s somethin’ that she knows…

 

They be talkin’ about a lady,

She stand up tall and straight.

The masters, they don’t like her none,

‘Cause she don’t know “her place”.

 

They be talkin’ about a lady,

She got a light up in her hand;

Black folks say it’s like a star

To lead ‘em up out of this land…

 

They be talkin’ about a lady,

She a friend to all us slaves:

She gonna get us out this misery,

We gonna see these end of days.

 

They be talkin’ about a lady,

She standing for us all:

For them who fight for freedom,

For those who gonna fall…

 

They be talkin’ about a lady,

She broke them shackles at her feet!

She hold ‘em high up in the air,

It be a sign of victory.

 

They be talkin’ about a lady,

She made of stone up on the slope;

They say her name be Liberty

And she here to give us hope.

COPYRIGHT 2012 © ELIZABETH MICHAUD JOHN.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Finding Horror

I wrote a poem today and it was horrific.

Not horrific in the sense that it was filled with typos, misspelled words, or a stupid message.

But horrific in the sense that I wrote it as a response of sorts to a picture of a terrible incident I found on the Internet.

The photo was of a picture of a lynching.  It must have been taken around 1920, I think it was, and it showed a young black man hanging.  Actually, the lynch-mob decided it wasn’t enough to hang him, so they doused him in coal oil and burned him while he hanged.

I guess they wanted to make sure the job got done right.

And yet, as horrid as this picture was, what bothered me most was the reaction of one man in the crowd.

He was smiling.  Smiling as if he was watching the greatest show on earth.

I guess maybe he was.

As I looked at the photograph, I kept my eye on this man, holding his shotgun, so smug and satisfied with the action taking place before him, deaf to what I’m sure was this young man’s pleas for mercy, immune to this same man’s screams and cries of pain.

The guy just stood there, smiling away, and I began to wonder about the kind of hate a heart must harbor in order for a person to stand there so coldly and yet so happily at the demise of another human being, especially a death of such a gruesome nature.  The more I looked, the more I pondered, and then before I knew what was happening, I had a Word document open on my desktop, and my fingers were flying over the keys.

I wrote and wrote and wrote and when I was done, I had written a poem in the voice of the smiling man.  A vicious, sarcastic verse about this postcard picture and as far as that poem goes, it does what it’s supposed to do.  It’s dark and ugly, filled with hate and vitriol and venom.  It’s filled with horror.

Because for me, this is where true horror starts:  in a postcard.  In reality.

This “postcard” is clear, hard evidence—one of many, unfortunately—of  the ugliness in human nature that leads to horror.  In that photo, true horror is presented in its rawest form:  in this case, a man smiling at the violent, senseless death of another.

What is my point?  My point is that frequently, people ask me:  “How do you do it?  How do you come up with this stuff?”

I don’t know that I ever just “come up” with anything.  I know what frightens me, and based on that, I look around and I interpret what I see.  Unfortunately, there’s darkness everywhere,  all around.  For me, I typically base my darker works—either stories or poems—in reality, because clearly, these things can, do, or have happened, and they are terror in their own right.  I don’t necessarily need to make up stories about lab experiments gone wrong, demons from hell, or aliens from outer space, when all around me, regular people are providing a narrative of darkness everyday.  When I weave my tales of horror, it’s the human animal I refer to and that provides me with ample fodder.  And because there is an element of truth and possibility in the storyline, I think it makes the story that much more frightening.

That’s how I get my ideas.

This isn’t to say that I won’t venture into the fantastic or the supernatural.  Not at all.  I don’t want to limit myself or my writing in that way.  But, for me, as a writer and as a reader, there is a kind of comfort that is derived from a tale that, when I put the pen down or the book away, I can easily venture back into the realms of reality knowing that the imagined words on the page will never come to pass.  I’m scared only for a moment, while in the moment, and then it passes. It’s over.  It’s gone.

But, in my capacity as a writer, a reader, or even as a casual observer of human behavior, the minute that realism is introduced, however it’s presented—through fact or fiction, in verse or in prose, through pictures or film, in actions or in deeds—then it stays with me, tormenting my thoughts, dictating my actions.  I keep my children a little bit closer, I hold my husband a little bit tighter.

When there is a hint of realism, of possibility, of probability, I know horror is lurking around the corner, waiting for me.  And as a result, as part of my creative process, I don’t need to look for “scary ideas”.  Horror finds me.

When I was on the computer today, surfing the net, I wasn’t looking for anything particularly shocking.  But somehow, in my many clicks, I wound up on that site, on that picture, and on the face of the smiling man.  To me, it was pure evil, when I least expected it, when I was least looking for it, and it scared me.

And then, I wrote about it.

EMJ

This entry was written as a guest post for fellow blogger and author Edward Lorn, author of Dastardly Bastard and Bay’s End.  Be sure to check out his blog at edwardlorn.wordpress.com.  His books are available both in print and for download at amazon.com.

An Interesting Thing Happened on the Way to the Movies…

This summer, I decided to introduce my three children to classic films.

As a child of the eighties, that means revisiting Ferris’ Day Off, wondering about The Color Purple, or looking for a Ghost, for example.(Incidentally, I kind of resent that these movies are now in fact classics–I refuse to be that old!)

Moving on…

In any case, as I have been creating my list of films for the kids to watch, something interesting happened, however inadvertently.

My kids are starting to learn about race.

As my children get older and become more active and involved in their surroundings, amazingly they are not overly bombarded by racism. Obviously, racism has by in no means been completely eradicated in this country (even with the first black president, woo hoo!) but I would like to think, for my children’s sake, that we as a country are generally making progress.

The movies that I have picked and have been picking for my kids have been chosen for their cinematic quality.  They were chosen because they made me laugh or cry or scared me to death (in a very intelligent way) or just made me think.  They moved me with their messages or their stories.  The actors and actresses touched my heart with their performances.  I picked them for any of the same reasons that makes anyone love a particular film.

But in the process of picking them, I didn’t realize that I was picking quite a few movies that dealt with race relations.  It was an accident–although as we begin to move through our movie list, a happy accident indeed.

Because we are living in an age where our children are becoming more tolerant of one another,  the harsh realities of racism are slowly (I will stress slowly, mind you) becoming a thing of the past.  Accounts of ugly, overt racism and prejudice are being relegated to film and screen, and I think that’s a good thing.  I like that my children are shocked and horrified by some of the things they are seeing in these films, because it means they are becoming sympathetic to the situations presented.  They are outraged by the racism and violence that blacks suffered, and saddened by the lack of respect they endured, and grief-struck by the loss of life.  They are emotionally connecting to the right and wrong of the films, and that’s good.

But more than this, I like that those horrors have only touched them through film.  Not in real life.

I am happy and grateful for that.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that they won’t ever feel the sting of racism (and certainly I hope they are never the victim of violence, be it through an act of hate or otherwise).  I don’t delude myself.  We as a country have a long way to go.  Recently, the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin case was all over the news, and it served as a stark reminder that we can easily move backwards, that we can easily use prejudice and stereotypes as a reason for violence against a minority, and that will never be acceptable.  I can’t watch that story unfold and not think of my own young son, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but one day, will be that same young man walking down the street in a hoodie.  That frightens me to no end.

Or the case of the young black student, Kymberly Wimberly, who, in 2011, was told she had to share valedictorian status with a white student, even though she clearly had the higher average of the two.  When I read the story of Kymberly, I think of my very own daughter, who loves, loves, loves school and dreams of being valedictorian herself one day.  How terrible would it be for her to work so hard and achieve her dream, only to have someone take it from her, because it  “didn’t seem possible” that she actually garnered such an accomplishment?  I shake with outrage at the thought.

So yes, clearly, we still have much work to do.  People are not perfect, and as such, neither is our country.

But, at the risk of sounding too naive in my dreams,  my hope is that one day, all of these ugly instances will only be lived and re-lived through history books, or perhaps through the Internet.

And of course, at the movies.

EMJ