Friday, March 4, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 24: Black Site Q + “Terra Incognita” by David Roderick

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 24: Black Site Q + “Terra Incognita” by David Roderick

Jesus replied, “The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.

The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.”
--The Gospel of Mark

During my foray into Washington with Mark Nowak, I stopped into Bridge Street bookstore and browsed about, flipping through a recent book by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk about religion. In brief, if I’ve understood him correctly, Sloterdijk proposes that the major religions share in common a powerful injunction to stay faithful to God and the community and to the dogma which unites the community to God. For Sloterdijk, this is precisely why the problem of heresy and the question of loyalty become central concerns for institutional religion, and how violence and other modes of coercion come to play a role in “protecting” that dogma and that community. In other words, organized religion has historically employed the same sorts of coercions that other organizations have—from tribes to states, and within and beyond, in a transnational world, corporations, etc.

I mention this because, in writing through this Lenten observance, I’ve found myself recoiling against some of the language of injunction, the language of fealty (rather than faith). Perhaps this is why I’ve often thought of the work of the poet/writer and the life of faith in an organized religion as a struggle of allegiances. Didn't the drive inside me to write emerge from a sense of the insufficiency and even violence of grand narratives—whether Christianity or Freudianism or Capitalism or American Empire? That even though I’ve lived inside and thought longest about the stories of the Bible than any other stories,  I’ve felt compelled—called even—to draw my own maps of understanding, to try to locate myself through language in entirely my own way? And yet, something causes me to return to those old stories again, as if they might contain some seed that has yet to bloom in me.

Today’s poem is “Black Site (Exhibit Q),” courtesy of Mohamed Farag Bashmilah, a Yemeni national who was arrested and “rendered” to various secret prison known as Black Sites. He felt compelled to draw maps of each place, as if by drawing these places he might make sense of this absurd and surreal thing that was happening to him. Also David Roderick’s “Terra Incognita,” that tries to make sense of the relative ignorance in which we find ourselves as Americans, in a world where black sites are hidden from our view, that promise to secure us but paradoxically imperil us in new ways.

 “Terra Incognita” by David Roderick

Counting scars of gum on the stairs down
from the Dome I briefly felt joy

even though I’d just read, in the World or Times,
that some of my fellow citizens

led men to warehouses or sites lost
in chalk republics, where they asked questions

in English and then, when they couldn’t grasp
the answers, zapped skin, brain, and bones

to kingdom come. While I drank like a lush
it happened. While I washed down

a pastry with a divine swipe of cheese inside.
My hunger deepened in rundown

churches and cabs. Spooning soup and eyeing
the news I thought being an American

isn’t like being from one of the old nations—
it’s not a gift exactly, but it’s also

not something to take lightly or give away.
I pictured dawn drawing over it,

the sun hammering its domes. The campaigns
were ramping up, yet here I was eating

fries in a piazza, watching boys loop string
around a pigeon’s neck. Mostly I got what I wanted,

forgot what I was, until a driver in dark glasses
turned to me and said, “Your people,

whoever they are, aren’t ready for a woman president,
let alone a black.” I said nothing and flogged

myself for days until, stomping up Vesuvius,
I sucked deep the fog that still smelled like ash.
Then I walked down again, thinking about all
those faces in the city below—what a shocking fate

for a single blast’s gas to settle on
that populace, to crumple like paper all its lungs.

-- David Roderick is the author of two books; his first book, Blue Colonial (2006), was chosen by Robert Pinsky as winner of the APR/Honickman Prize. The Pitt Poetry Series published Roderick’s second book, The Americans, in 2014. Roderick’s poetry has also been honored with the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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