Monday, May 30, 2011

Shara McCallum's "History is a Room": Widening the Frame of Memorial Day

I first discovered Shara McCallum's poetry while co-editing the anthology, Come Together: Imagine Peace.  Her "The Story So Far" was stark and vivid enough to lead off the "witness" section of the book.  Her "History is a Room" explores that odd awareness we have, in imperial America, of our privilege and dislocation, our protection and vulnerability, on the "homefront."  What better poem to dilate our sense of what to memorialize on this Memorial Day--not just the soldiers who've fought in wars, but the civilians who've engaged in their own battles to reclaim rights and dignity at home and abroad.

History is a Room

The study of History is the study of Empire.
—Niall Ferguson

I cannot enter.

To enter that room, I would need to be a man who makes History, not a girl to whom History happened.

Mother to two daughters, I guard their lives with hope, a pinch of salt I throw over my shoulder.

To enter that room, I would need to wield a gun.

Here, I brandish weapons that serve an art my mother and grandmother knew: how to make of plantain and eggs a meal.

To enter that room, I would need to live in the past, to understand how power is amassed, eclipsing the sun.

Beneath my children's beds, I scatter grains of rice to keep duppy at bay.

To enter that room, I would need to live in the present: This election. This war.

Beneath my children's pillows, I place worry dolls to ensure their peaceful sleep.

To enter that room, I would need to bridge the distance between my door and what lies beyond.

Standing in my foyer at dusk, I ask the sea to fill the crevices of this house with its breath.

History is recounted by the dead, returned from their graves to walk in shriveled skins.

In our yard, I watch my daughters run with arms papering the wind.

History is recounted by children in nursery rhymes, beauty masking its own violence.

In my kitchen, I peel an orange, try to forget my thumb must wrest the pulp from its rind.

History is recounted in The Book of Explanations: AK-47 begat UZI, which begat M-16 ... and all the days of their lives were long.

Pausing at the sink, I think of how a pepper might be cut, blade handled so the knife becomes the fruit slit open, its seeds laid bare.

History is recounted in The Book of Beginnings: the storey of a people born of forgetting.

In our yard, I name the world for my children—praying mantis, robin's egg, maple leaf—words for lives they bring me in their palms.

To enter that room, I would need to look into the mirror of language, see in collateral damage the faces of the dead.

In our yard, I sow seeds, planting myself in this soil.

To enter that room, I would need to uncover the pattern of a life woven onto some master loom.

Here, I set the table, sweep the floor, make deals with the god of small things.

To enter that room, I would need to be armed with the right question: is History the start of evening or dawn returning the swallow to the sky?

Here, I light candles at nightfall, believe the match waits to be struck.

Shara McCallum
This Strange Land
Alice James Books
thanks to Poetry Daily for reprinting this poem.

1 comment:

Steve Lucess said...

In this poem the acts of war and the affect it will have on a person is shown. The poem is beautifully written and gives out a great meaning of what this is truly about. The things we will do for freedom and the affects after can bring great change, not only the people who fight for it, but to the people who will support it and in whom we fight for.