I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
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Justin Peters is told by his department how he must teach the Great Books course he has been assigned. He is told that works he selects must not be exclusively European. They must cross cultures, cover the big continents and the major island clusters. Justin believes that cross-cultural is a code word for nonwhite but he has no problems including nonwhite writers on his reading list. Indeed, he had already selected Walcott, Naipaul, Achebe, Soyinka, Morrison and García Márquez, literary giants in his opinion, he tells the curriculum committee—And not because they are nonwhite—when the committee delivered its edict in a letter to the chairperson, pointing him out as one of the faculty most in need of guidance. “We are concerned about the lack of diversity on Professor Peters’s reading list. He needs to be sensitive to the evolving canon.”
For the fact is that though Justin has included non-European writers on his reading list, he continues to insist on requiring Homer, Euripides, and Sophocles, the Greeks he calls the Ancients even after the Afrocentrists have reminded him that the Egyptian civilization occurred long before the Greek. But to Justin, the Renaissance, which was the focus of his studies in graduate school, owed its debt to the Greeks, not to the Egyptians. He could not begin without them. None of the books on his list would make sense without them.
The committee tells him that his students need to learn about their own heritage, their own culture. He is almost shouting when he responds that the Greeks are part of his students’ heritage, the human heritage. That Western civilization is his students’ civilization. “Is Hector’s courage when he shirks the protective walls of Troy and faces the mighty Achilles Ancient Greek courage, white European courage? Is Hector’s sense of responsibility for his men white responsibility? Is the shame he feels for having endangered them because of a macho notion of masculinity white shame?”
His canon is the canon of good books, no matter who has written them, Justin says. Homer is relevant to him because Homer writes about human beings and he, Justin, is a human being, his students are human beings. He points to the long epic poem Omeros, written by the Caribbean Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. Homer was Walcott’s inspiration, he says.
The members of the committee continue to suspect him but ultimately they allow him Homer and, eventually, Euripides’s Medea when he makes the argument that Toni Morrison’s Sethe was not the first woman to kill her child and expect sympathy, and then Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex when he adds that an understanding of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is impossible without a familiarity with Oedipus. But they warn him that he must diversify the rest of his course for race, gender, ethnicity, and class. He must have equal numbers of women writers on his reading list, he must cross ethnicities, historical periods and class. And he must do all this in one semester. He gives in, for they threaten to relegate him to Comp 1 and 2 if he does not fall in line. As it is, he teaches one section of Comp 1 and 2, but also two sections of literature. If he angers them, Comp 1 and 2 are all he will teach.
And Sally, he says to himself, believes he has more. She wants more. She wants meaning. She wants her life’s work. Is he to be responsible for helping her find her life’s work? Is this the obligation of a husband? Was this included in his marriage vows?
On days like these, he thinks, I want my life’s work, too. I was educated at Harvard, the premier university in the country. I am a scholar of Renaissance British Literature. I could have gone anywhere. I was in demand at prestigious institutions, but here I am, in this small public college in Brooklyn—of my own choosing, it is true; out of a sense of obligation, it is true: If not for those who believed a black boy like me from an outpost in the Caribbean could master the Masters, where would I be? I wanted to give back and I chose here, but now I am forced to submit to a political agenda, to a New Wave ideology cooked up by do-gooders operating under the misconception that racism will be eradicated when everyone comes to the table with his or her piece of the pie. For, as Justin sees it, racism will be a fact of life until we acknowledge our common humanity, until we admit that we are all in this together—rich, poor, black, white, yellow, and red—the inheritors of a legacy that was forfeited in Eden. And so Justin has committed himself to showing his students that they can find themselves in ancient Greek literature, that Shakespeare can be meaningful to their lives.
The students are waiting for him when he enters the classroom. Today they will continue Hamlet. They have reached Act IV. Hamlet is on a plain in Denmark. One more time Hamlet is berating himself for his lack of courage. He knows that his uncle murdered his father. He has the proof: his father’s ghost returned from the dead to tell him all. He had actors stage a play about a king who was murdered as his father was murdered. He saw the guilt on his uncle’s face. Why has he done nothing? Why has he not avenged his father’s murder?
Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’ event—
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward—
Justin reads the soliloquy aloud. Then suddenly, without warning, a thought sneaks up on him and plunges him into the dark tunnels of self-recrimination: If Hamlet is a coward, then is he, Justin, a coward?
He clears his throat. “Is Hamlet a coward?” He poses the question to his students, but it is the answer to the question about himself he wants. Surely he has sufficient evidence that Sally is having an affair. She no longer enjoys sex with him; she stays out late; she hangs up the phone when he enters the room; the phone clicks off when he answers it. Why is he so ready to accept her word, her bogus explanation? What more evidence does he need?
A chair scrapes loudly across the tiled classroom floor in the back of the classroom and refocuses his attention. He pushes Sally away and leans forward on his desk. He forces himself to remember his purpose: to make Shakespeare relevant, Hamlet meaningful to his students. But Hamlet has become relevant to him, relevant to his quarrel with Sally.
“Miss Clark,” he says. “You want to say what, Miss Clark?” Ordinarily, he does not address this student with such enthusiasm. Ordinarily he grits his teeth and does his best to cut her short, but now he wants a distraction. “What do you think, Miss Clark?”
She is a woman he finds intimidating, and not only because physically she is overpowering, a full-figured woman with big breasts, large thighs, and an ample backside; not only because she insists on Lycra, Lycra top and Lycra leggings (today, it is white top and black leggings that stretch over her voluptuous curves like the casing on sausage); not only because she has big hair, dark brown and auburn extensions rising above bangs across her forehead and falling in a thick mane to her shoulders; not only because she has hooked into her earlobes huge gold hoop earrings, two sets, the ones on the top larger than the others below them; not only because she has plucked her eyebrows in thin streaks that arch menacingly above her eyes (menacingly is the way Justin sees them, for he is ill at ease with women like Miriam Clark, women he senses know a world he is acquainted with only through books); not only because she has lined her full lips with a darker shade of the deep red lipstick she is wearing; but because, though she cannot be more than 21, she is a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners woman. Weeks before, after a discussion about Bernardo, the husband in García Márquez’s novel who returns his wife to her parents when he discovers she is not a virgin, he heard her say to one of the male students as she was leaving the class, “Yeah, let somebody just try to return me as if I was a bag of garbage!” Justin had no doubt that she would make chicken feed of such a man.
Now she is working her way to the front of the class.
“He a punk,” she says. “Hamlet’s a punk.” She is punching the air with her finger, jerking her head back and forth on her neck like a duck as if to the beat of one of those rap songs that blast eternally from boom boxes and cars all over the city. Her earrings clang against each other. “A plain, ordinary, punky coward. Yeah, that’s what he is. A cowardly punky punk. A punk.” Not even her lilting Jamaican accent can soften the harshness of her accusation.
The class titters with nervous laughter. Justin, too, is affected. Is that what he is: a cowardly punky punk?
“A weak little man,” Miriam Clark says. She is standing next to Justin’s desk, facing the class.
“Preach, sister.” One of the women in the class urges her on.
Justin feels a discomforting need to defend Hamlet, to defend himself, but he does not want to be chicken feed. He tells himself that that is what Miriam Clark will make of him if he speaks now. He knows a terrible rage burns in her. Mark Sandier has told him that her boyfriend was picked up by the police for delivering a bag of cocaine to a friend in Harlem. He is doing six to eight years. She was left with two small children, a boy four and a girl three. She was in her second year when her boyfriend was sent upstate. He made her promise to finish college.
“Thing is he never took drugs. Not even smoked weed,” said Mark. “He was what the cops call a mule. He just delivered the goods.”
“If he had any guts, he would off his uncle, Claudius, for killing his father,” Miriam Clark is saying. “He’s a weak crybaby making excuses. A mama’s boy, that’s what he is. Crying because his mama has a new boyfriend. A punk. I wouldn’t let anyone get off killing my father. You hurt the people I love, and it’s Good Night for you.”
Mark said there was nothing Miriam Clark could do. She had no money for lawyers and the lawyer the court gave her thought black boys should be penned upstate anyway. Or sent back to Africa.
“Yeah, Hamlet knows what he is. He’s right. He knows he has no balls. He knows he’s a coward. How many times is he going to say that? Punk!”
Justin decides to let her wear out her anger. All for a bag of cocaine, a delivery that is made every 60 seconds on Wall Street, Mark had said.
And then an older student raises his hand. He is close to 60, older than Justin. Like the rest of the college, his class is made up of young high school graduates, but older adults, too, returning to school, some after an absence of two or three decades.
“Mr. Blackstone?” Justin’s voice strains with anxiety.
“What I want to say, what I am going to say, may not please Miriam, but I want her to listen.”
“Miss Clark?” He turns to Miriam Clark.
Her chest is heaving, but she is consumed by private thoughts now.
“Can I speak, Miriam?” Mr. Blackstone asks her. A stately man with kind eyes, he is old enough to be her grandfather.
Miriam bites her bottom lip.
“Is it okay?”
She waves her hand in front of her face. She could have been brushing away a fly. Or a bad thought. Charles Blackstone takes it as a sign of consent.
“I’m a prison guard,” he says. “In Rikers Island.”
The students give him their full attention.
“Every day I see more and more hotheads come in the prison. Young Turks like you. No offense, Miriam. I don’t say this to insult you.” He glances in her direction. She is breathing normally. “I want to help you,” he says. “All of you. The professor here wants us to figure out what is Hamlet’s problem and if he did the right thing. I say Hamlet did the right thing to take his time to figure out what to do. If the young boys I see in jail took their time to figure out things, they wouldn’t be in jail. You don’t always have to do something when you get mad, when somebody don’t do right by you.”
Nobody moves. Nobody makes a sound.
“I know it’s hard when the police treat you like you’re nobody. When they snatch you from the corner and all you’re doing is talking to your buddies. Or when they stop you in the street because you’re wearing a good leather jacket they think you shouldn’t own. But don’t challenge them. They have the power. Say Yes, sir; No, sir, even if you want to kill them. Say Yes, sir; No, sir. Give them what they want. They’re just itching for an excuse to send you upstate, don’t you know? A lot of the young men in Rikers Island wouldn’t be there if they knew how to say Yes, sir; No, sir. Think out things first. Don’t act when you’re hot and sweaty and you want to hurt somebody. You end up hurting yourself. Take time to think, cool off. Figure out how you can do something so that you don’t end up hurting yourself. Because that is all you do when you act with a hot head. You hurt yourself.”
Even Miriam Clark is still. The corners of her mouth twitch as if she is about to cry. She gathers her books and stuffs them in her bag. She rushes out of the classroom.
Minutes later, the period ends. The classroom is empty, but Justin remains sitting at the desk. Yes, Hamlet is not a coward. He has his answer. Not only should he not do anything more, he should not have done anything at all. He should not have said a word. He should have waited until he had spoken to Sally. He should have given himself time to think. He should not have jumped to conclusions. He should not have let a mirage of letters in the early dawn lead him to doubt her.
On his way home he buys a bunch of tulips. They are Sally’s favorite flowers. He gets pink ones with white scalloped edges. Pink is Sally’s favorite color.
The house is strangely quiet when he opens the front door. It is half past five. When it’s Sally’s turn to pick up Giselle, she is usually home by half past five. He calls out to her.
“Sally!” He walks into the kitchen. She is sitting quietly at the table sipping a mug of tea.
“Anna has her.”
“She has taken her to the library.”
There is a storytime program for young children at the central branch of the public library on Grand Army Plaza. Around six, the librarian or some good storyteller reads a bedtime story. Some of the children come to the library already dressed for bed, wearing pajamas under their coats. Giselle loves this storytime program. Either he or Sally takes her when they can.
“I thought we needed to talk,” Sally is saying, “so I asked Anna to take her.”
He does not want this. He feels foolish now standing next to her, the bunch of tulips clutched in his right hand and pressed against his chest. He lets his hand fall and the tulips point downward, toward the floor. She notices.
“Where did you get them?” she asks.
He does not want to say he bought them for her. “It’s such a nasty day, I thought they would brighten up the house.”
She takes them from him and reaches for a vase. While she puts water in it, he tells her about Miriam Clark and Charles Blackstone’s response to her, how he turned Hamlet into a cautionary tale that seemed to scare the class. He is not conscious that he is telling her this because he wants her to come to his same conclusion: They need time to think. He should never have disturbed their calm that morning by asking the question, Did you have something to tell me, Sally? He is conscious only of filling spaces, of trying to ease the tension between them.
Sally knows about Miriam and sympathizes deeply with her. She knows where the tentacles of racism can reach. Right into your front yard, in the quiet of the morning, when you are turning in your sleep, when your father places an arm around your mother and draws her to him. Right in the bullet of a gunshot that triggers a nightmare. Then your father is lying in a pool of blood, your mother is pulling her hair from the roots. Tufts of black balls fall softly to the ground, light as feathers. Your brother turns to stone and you try to move him. “Run, run,” you shout. “Go get help.” He is older than you. He should protect you. You scream, and his muscles soften, loosen. Urine rolls down his pants.
Sally used to live in Harlem, but not always in an apartment. When she was a child, she lived in an entire house, with four floors and a garden in the back, in a brownstone house on Strivers Row on 139th Street. Her father was a doctor, a graduate of an Ivy League medical school who baffled his friends by returning to Harlem to open a practice. They could not understand: he had his life in front of him, a future that promised fame and fortune. But Dr. George Henry was a man of conscience. He wanted to practice medicine where he was most needed. His sister called him a foolish man. She said so with a tenderness that brought water to her eyes.
In the summer of 1965 Dr. Henry decided to make good on a promise he had made to his wife, Ursula Henry. He rented a house for the summer on a lake in Alabama, the state where his wife had spent her childhood. His plan was not to stay the entire summer there, of course. He would come when he could, every two weeks. Word got out about the big-shot doctor from the North. The big-shot, uppity Nigra doctor acting like white folks.
One night in August, a posse of men in white hoods and robes rode into their front yard. Sally’s father ran out with a shotgun. They killed him in self-defense, the Alabama police said. Her mother had a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. Sally was four, her brother, Tony, was seven. He overdosed on heroin when he was 25.
Sally told Justin this story just once, before they were married. She did not want his sympathy. She simply wanted to warn him about a major difference between them: He has not had the experience of growing up black in America. But she had read Khalil Gibran: Let there be spaces in your togetherness. Complete agreement, she said, is not a requirement for marriage.
Justin shares this view: the notion of two becoming one is a fantasy, a myth. He married Sally because she understood this. She would give him room for his work. He did not think, when he proposed to her, that she would need room for her work. She taught primary school, little children learning primary colors.
“What Charles Blackstone says makes sense,” she says, “but sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns.”
Justin tries again. Perhaps he has not told it well. Mr. Blackstone had managed to quiet the class. Mr. Blackstone had calmed down the excitable Miriam.
“It does make sense, though, to keep a cool head. To think things out,” he says.
“It depends,” she says.
They are quiet again.
“Well, we better get along with it,” she says abruptly, putting the vase with the tulips on the table. “I think the best thing for me to do is to move out, don’t you think?” She sits down.
Cubes of ice slide down Justin’s chest and settle in the brine at the pit of his stomach. “Wait, wait a minute, Sally,” he says. He pulls out the chair opposite to her. This is not the way he wants things to go. This is not the way at all.
“After all, it is your house,” she says.
The ice melts and the brine, cold, churns. Justin puts one hand on the back of the chair and braces himself. “Don’t you feel you are carrying things a tidbit too far?” He is relieved he has managed to choose words that spare him from exposure, that camouflage how scared he feels at this moment.
“Tidbit?” she asks.
And at once he realizes his mistake. It is a quintessentially British word weighted with quintessentially British condescension. The colonial boy automatically mimicking British ways.
“‘Tidbit too far?’” she repeats.
Why couldn’t he have simply said Too far, much too far?
“Too far.” He says it now. “You are taking things much too far.”
But she is already angry. “Not when you are sneaking up on me to find out who I am talking to on the phone.”
What should happen next is that his fear should intensify. What happens next is that he feels a load, a stack of bricks, topple off his shoulders and fall, crashing to pieces on the ground. No more secrets.
“Okay,” he says and holds up his hands, the palms open wide. “Okay.” He pulls the chair out further. It’s out in the open. He sits.
“Don’t think I didn’t see you,” Sally says.
“I wouldn’t have been worried if each time you didn’t end the conversation or put down the phone the minute I walked in the room,” he says.
“You still had no right to do that.”
“No right?” He will not sit passively for this one. “What do you mean, no right? I am your husband.” But only a few weeks ago he was chastising a male student for treating his girlfriend as property. “At least tell your boyfriend to call you somewhere else,” he says, flicking off that tremor of conscience that could have stopped him. “Don’t have him intrude on my privacy. In my house.”
“Yes,” she says, “you don’t have to remind me. I know it is your house.”
Moments ago when she said your house he did not correct her, though he had taken pains when they married to assure her that he considered the house to be both of theirs. So he is not innocent now of flexing his muscles, of trying to dry up the liquid that had pooled in his stomach. “Don’t change the subject,” he says.
“I don’t have a boyfriend. That is not the problem.”
“And don’t have him hanging up on me, either.”
“There is no other man.”
“You want space?” he jeers, but he is acting as much for her as for himself. “I know what you want space for.”
She looks at him directly in his eyes. She does not waver. “Okay, Justin, okay. I will tell you. But it is not what you want to hear.”
He sits up and prepares himself.
“I know what you want,” she says. “You want a Sally done gone and done me wrong song. You want Justin the Righteous, Justin the sinned against, Sally the sinner. But you won’t get that, Justin, because Sally has not sinned.” She looks down on her hands. “It was my therapist,” she says.
“Therapist?” He repeats the word foolishly.
“Those calls,” she says, facing him again, “they were from my therapist. I didn’t want to let you know I was in therapy. I didn’t want to hear your scornful remarks. I didn’t want you telling me about my psychobabble again. I told the therapist to hang up if you answered the phone. I lowered my voice because I didn’t want you to hear what I was saying. And when I come home late, it is because I’ve had an appointment with the therapist. That’s it, Justin. No man, no lover, no boyfriend, no husband betrayed. Just an unhappy wife trying to make herself better.”
The liquid returns, the acidity in the brine burns. He stands up. “I bought the tulips for you,” he says. He knows he says it too late.
“They’re pretty,” she says.
He walks to the kitchen door and looks through the glass panes into the darkening evening. “So what now?”
“I want to move in with Anna.”
Frost encases his heart. “And what about Giselle?” he asks, quietly, softly.
“She goes with me, of course.”
He does not move. He does not turn to look at her. He remains where he is, at the kitchen door, still staring into the dark. “No,” he says and repeats it. “No.”
“I cannot have you do that. No, Sally.”
“You cannot have me … ?” Her voice trembles with indignation.
He walks toward the table. “If you go, Giselle stays here,” he says. “This plot you and Anna have cooked up won’t work, Sally.”
“Anna has nothing to do with this,” she says.
He stands in front of her. “I don’t want you to leave, Sally. I want you to stay, but if you leave, Giselle remains here.” His voice is flat, toneless, but there is no mistaking its finality. “Understand me, Sally, I will not let you take Giselle out of this house.”
Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
Elizabeth Nunez is the author of four novels, including Discretion, Beyond the Limbo of Silence, and Bruised Hibiscus, which was the winner of an American Book Award. She was born in Trinidad and emigrated to the United States after secondary school. She is the Distinguished Professor of English at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. The director of the National Black Writers Conference sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities for 17 years, Nunez also chairs the PEN American Open Book Committee. A recipient of numerous awards and professional honors, Nunez lives in Amityville, New York. Grace will be published by Baltantine Books in March 2003.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.