2nd ANNUAL NAPOMO :: DAY 17 :: CAITS MEISSNER on YONA HARVEY
I have drunk in the words of Yona Harvey a’plenty and surfaced quenched. She is a blessing of a poet, a writer who’s words stick in the psyche for time. Of her breadth of work, there is one particular poem that has haunted me the most: TURQUOISE.
I discovered this piece during a time when I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the glamorizing of Frida Kahlo as a tragic women. There seemed to be a mandate: if you are a woman and you are an artist, you obsess over Kahlo and her maddeningly abusive relationship as a marker of true love, and therefore, true artistry. Yona’s words hit the center of me as I navigated my place in relationship to an artist I love, and the culture of worshipping a problematic iconography of partnership. Like me, Yona is married to another artist, poet Terrence Hayes. Like me, I assume, Yona is not impressed by the dramatics of unhealthy relationships. And like me, Yona is unafraid to speak the hard pill of her truth.
In TURQUOISE, Yona explores the complicated space of women- and the falsity of simple universal sisterhood. I have grappled with my own allegiance to all women- and while I believe inherently in my feminist orientation, and the overarching family of women- like all humanity, there comes a time when my personal opinions fall outside of these constructed labels. Thinking of Yona’s TURQUOISE, I penned my own poem questioning sisterhood, wondering if I was betraying a fellow woman by telling a male friend to run from her emotional abuse. Underneath the poem, I am well aware that our allegiances lie with people we love and trust, no matter the packaging we arrive in. In the poem I am questioning, but like Yona, there is no doubt I know the answer.
In my growth, as a woman and human, I am increasingly drawn to poets who can take a topic and flip it on its head- who can risk looking unsavory in favor of honesty. Yona is a shining example of such poet, a deep elbow grease rub on the face of insincerity. May one day Yona and I meet, share a laugh over a cup of coffee and not be wooed by the adornments the other chooses to throw on her magnificent body- but commune, over shared ideas, words we love and all the ways we elevate above our given- or chosen- identities.
& then the woman who wants
to sleep with my husband
sends him a card with Frida Kahlo’s sepia
face peering through it & he
begins reading the note aloud to me, as if
the words might bring the woman back
across the line she crossed that summer
he mentioned her name for the first time.
Then I think his brush with temptation
isn’t as noble as he’d like to believe, more like
cleaning the house when it gets dirty—he could
mark it on a table of triumphs, but, at the end of the day,
it mostly amounts to what he is supposed to do.
Men are so clueless sometimes,
which isn’t a revelation, but occasionally needs restating
& brings to mind something I read about
Lenny Kravitz composing penitent lyrics for Lisa Bonet,
for committing particular betrayals
to song, how he believed the pair might reconcile
as soon as Lisa heard the album he’d dedicated to her.
Women are clueless sometimes, too,
like the one who cried to me on a campus bench
that she wanted to be an artist, to travel,
while the others rushed to lunch, to more classes.
& what should she do? Then I thought,
People are always asking questions whose answers
they already know & That’s a great necklace she’s wearing
which I told her, but she recoiled when I said
wearing turquoise jewelry & Frida Kahlo skirts
doesn’t make women artists, which was probably the cruelest thing
I’d ever said to a young woman, but exactly how I felt
watching her fuss over the ruffles of her long, black skirt.
These days, Frida Kahlo appears like a god to whom I’ve
prayed, like accessories that shake at the bottom of a woman’s
shopping bag, a loose divinity of feel-good postcards & magnets
rocking on paper handles in the crease of an upright arm.
This is what I think when I ask my lover to stop
reading the note he wants me to render harmless.
Does a woman’s affection for Frida make her
my comrade? Years ago, with my head wrapped & bracelets
jangling, I might have answered yes. But when I ask
Who’s Lupe, Who’s Frida, Who’s Diego? I can’t help but conclude
someone’s at work on a grand cliché I’m supposed to buy into
& there’s nothing harmless about Frida Kahlo, exquisite painter
of stitches & steel, thorns & wombs & vaginas—something utterly
misleading about Frida’s face on a 4 x 4 note card, a little
too neat & too square, which makes sense in the American sense
of matinee love or lust or art or what passes for art, or living
the life of an artist, those heroes & heroines dangling over
the cliffs of vanity, begging for a little more rope.
When my best friend tells me he fell in love with a bird, I pull
the red sheath from the camera’s strong singular eye. There,
in thin shadow, a mask of a woman dismantling wings & I could
count the sins you could do to a man with those hyenas of hands.
Am I am betraying another woman by pushing him to run to the
nearest ocean & cleanse. Bull-hipped or frog-bellied or swan-necked,
are we strangers forced into sisterhood for the single warm trap
we possess, that imminent swirl of blossoming life & brown blood?
I love many women for this anatomy alone, & some for much more
& in the simplest of ways, I love this woman, too, even this brash
siren call I once sung to lure a man into saving my own ravaged
body, spread out onto stone in a soup of fish gut & breast.
I don’t know. The pain of solitude is its own evolution towards walking
upright on two sturdy legs & this may be loving too, I justify, setting
down the harpoon as I take his hooked heart into my mouth, unwrapping
the red sheath from my hidden sap & unfurling it against the bluest sky.
Shapeless, I am not a separatist clinging to a body I did not ask to be
born in, I am only wicked with concern. It is a choice to stand naked
in any human body, lashed by the cruelest rain when there are so many
umbrellas swimming through the streets like dark, looping seals.
Winner of the OneWorld Poetry Contest, Caits Meissner attended the 2008 Pan-African Literary Forum in Ghana, studying under Yusef Komunyakaa. She has been published in various journals and books, including Saul Williams’ recent anthology, CHORUS. Her poetry/music album was released to online acclaim through sites such as Okayplayer. The Letter All Your Friends Have Written You, Caits’ collaborative poetry book with poet Tishon, arrived January 2012 on the Well&Often imprint, a press where she also serves as Founding/Education Editor. She has performed at venues such as Joe’s Pub, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Highline Ballroom, NYU, Columbia University, The Kitchen and the Blue Note.