Who leads us, moon-drunk, into clover
and sweeps the starch rectangle of the blank half
of the bed? You love him? You love him not?
Lolling on the dark howl’s tambourine.
Honey, can’t find true love ‘cuz yuh too afraid to die.
The train is in the cattle yard again,
clattering up and down the lonely tracks.
Gourd of lullabies and rich dark earth,
what makes us cough, plump the pillow, rise
to take a piss, catch the distance lowing in our ears—
Is that Ella all glissando?
What floods our hearts with thunder?
The train is in the cattle yard again, clattering
up and down the lonely tracks.
Look how her tail’s a metronome. Her eyes are bells
of iron. Those daddy-long-leg lashes flint and there are sparks
of hammered iron flying ‘bout the room. She’s crying
Why, when a man gets too close with a bunch of cow-slip
orchids growing from his fist, you cock your head, go very still—
wonder what he plans on doing with his other fist?
You’re hiding in the cattle yard again.
Pull a ream of paper from the white shelf of sleep
“blankness + me = possibility unchained;”
and drown the tinkling cowbells in the toilet’s oceanic hiss.
But our conductor drop kicks her orchestra again.
She’s lounging on your moon-white pillow.
Fool, love won’t find you. Can’t find you.
Her bassoon now quaking all the orchids in the room.
Why not lay your head down on her chamois lap?
She’s scattering an entire confluence for you
of what is done and gone and lost for good
Life’s a dung-hill and you plant your seeds in thati
of what’s to come is yours and can be yours to trust
Not in punishment but in sanctified pleasure. Cross over.
Cross over. The train is in the cattle yard again.
Interview With Nehassaiu deGannes
How did you come to write The Last Surviving Hymn to Hathor?
“Last Surviving Hymn To Hathor” began as a failed sonnet. I became enthralled with the notion of writing little songs devoted to human failure, and while the sonnet form did not prove conducive to this particular meditation on failed love or the failure to love, the blues motif did. In the same way that traditional blues weave together the sacred and profane, this poem wanted to inhabit both the mythic and mundane. Here an earthy mythic voice whispers in the ear of a woman who tells herself she has awakened simply because she needs to take a piss. Nothing else. She’s ‘content’ and in control inside her protective shell of distrust and ambivalence, a shell that is a hard-earned armor, the result of childhood and adult sexual traumas. Yet something is gnawing at her. Tickling at her. Crooning in her ear. The truth that to truly survive we must relearn how to be vulnerable, to cross the tracks from victim to wholeness with all the risks that that entails, to trust, to break, to sing ourselves into wholeness---all of this was in the poem’s first seed, it’s first impulse, but it took several revisions to find it’s form and its meditation.
How did writing this poem affect your recovery?
I remember reading, while I was still an undergraduate, Alice Walkers’ IN SEARCH OF OUR MOTHERS’ GARDENS, in which she speaks of writing the books she needs to read. My poem is indeed a poem I need to read. I am both the distrusting ambivalent woman and the fairy-godmother-goddess-cow (as in Hathor/ as in the cow that jumped over the moon). I am the one in need of the message and the one in which the message resides. Writing this poem helped me give voice to a slowly-dawning realization that to stay on this side of the hard-bitten tracks wasn’t going to be enough.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?
I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, often allowing weeks and months between revisions. I listen and listen and listen, for as one of my first teachers, Sonia Sanchez, told me, “Listen to the poem. Always listen to the poem. It will tell you what it needs.” With this poem, I may also have employed a strategy that Rita Dove shared at a Cave Canem summer retreat: “Tear the poem in half length-wise. That will often reveal the dross.”
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you’d recommend to others?
Right now, four of my favorite poets are Tracy K. Smith, Aracelis Girmay, Natasha Tretheway and Ross Gay. Some of my perennial favorites include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Cesaire, and Lorna Goodison.
What are you working on now?
I am an actress and writer and am currently making my debut at the Stratford International Shakespeare Festival in Canada, playing "Lady Capulet" in Romeo & Juliet, directed by Tim Carroll of the UK's Old Globe and Factory Theatres, and "Anne of Austria, Queen of France" in The Three Musketeers, directed by Miles Potter. I will also be appearing in The Merchant of Venice, directed by Festival Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino. It will be a robust eight months.
Of the many projects I've collaborated on this past year, last Spring I played Diana Sands, opposite Broadway veteran actor and choreographer Hope Clarke, in a two-person play about Ms Sands' life and art. Diana was a brilliant African American actress, activist and pioneer, who passed away in 1973 at the age of 39, thus for many of us her work is little known or forgotten. She originated leading roles in Broadway productions of Hansberry's and Baldwin's plays, played Shaw’s “St. Joan” at Lincoln Center and was the first in a color-blind lead on Broadway, starring in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT opposite Alan Alda, as well as many many other stage and film credits.
Whether acting or writing, my work lays claim to several cross-cultural literary and theatrical legacies: British, American, Caribbean and Canadian, classical and contemporary. I constantly claim the right to play roles both written for and those not written expressly for black women, and fortunately I have had several opportunities to do just that. Thus, learning about Ms Sands and embodying her legacy was a profound experience.
Nehassaiu deGannes is a theatre artist & poet. Winner of the 2011 Center For Book Arts Letterpress Chapbook Award, the 2010 Inaugural Cave Canem Fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center, and several grants and awards to develop her one-woman show, Door of No Return, excerpts of which are featured in The Museum on Site’s book A Thousand Ships: A Ritual of Rembrance. Her poetry has appeared in Callaloo, Poem Memoir Story, American Poetry Review, Caribbean Writer, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tuesday: An Art Project, TORCH, Encyclopedia Project, After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery Anthology, The ARAVA Review and the Cave Canem Anthology XII. Recent acting credits include: "Kate" in Good People (Hampton Theatre); “Cordelia” in King Lear with Frankie Faison and Andre Braugher (Luna Stage); “Carmen” to Amy Irving’s “Madame Irma” (Red Bull Theatre); “The Nurse,” in Tony Walton’s production of EQUUS opposite Alec Baldwin (Guild Hall); the world premiere of The Tallest Building In The World (Luna Stage); “Betty,” A Song For My Father by David Budbill (Oldcastle Theatre), poet & mover in the national tour of Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso with Cynthia Oliver’s COCo Dance Theatre; and “Roberta Charles,” Room For Cream (Theatre of The Two-Headed Calf & LaMAMA ETC). Nehassaiu holds an MFA from Brown University and is a graduate of Trinity Rep Conservatory. She has taught poetry at The Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University, and was a part-time Assistant Professor of Theatre at Rhode Island College (2007-12). Visit her web site at Nehassaiu's web site.