a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Ventriloquy, noun: the art or practice of speaking, with little or no lip movement, in such a manner that the voice does not appear to come from the speaker but from another source, as from a wooden dummy.
Are writers right to ventriloquize? I ask
the question, James, because somebody’s been
“ventriloquizing” Prissy’s voice, Prissy
as played by Butterfly McQueen – who didn’t
object to being funny onscreen, but hated
playing stupid – in poetry magazines.
You’d have to know “the itsy-little voice
fading over the far horizon of
comprehension” to get the joke, maybe,
or maybe the joke is the ten-year-old son of
Daddy King singing spirituals to a white-
only crowd at the Ebenezer Baptist
Church to celebrate the film’s premiere,
the black actors pointedly not invited.
(James, I confess, I loved that book, read
it till the cover fell off: what does that mean?)
You and I, we’re like McQueen’s hands,
fluttering madly as we pas-de-deux
(you know Butterfly was a dancer, too,
and a non-believer, like you). James, maybe
it helps to know that Margaret Mitchell
gave funds to Morehouse College to educate
black doctors; collected erotica; lived part
of her short, racy life abused by a drunk
in that socialite’s Atlanta where black eyes
hid behind the shutters, while black boys
from New York were tossed away like empties.
What I’m saying, James, is I’m no Scarlett,
and you’re certainly no Prissy, although
we’re linked as inextricably as they:
my basement’s filled with self-published texts
of my father’s “race” plays in dialect.
Well-meant. Heart-felt. Utterly incorrect.
“There’s not a lazy bone in the body of
these people,” they said about the Japanese
and put it in the paper when several rode
bicycles all the way to West Palm Beach.
“The interests of the entire state are really
at heart with the colonists,” enthused a writer
in The Tropical Sun, finding prosperity
and progress everywhere in evidence.
Flagler laid the rails with Yamato in mind;
every train except the express stopped there.
The colonists wrote home for Japanese brides;
Japanese children squatted companionably
in the pineapple fields, churning ice cream
with the local kids, chucking stones at lizards,
scratching mosquito bites. Pineapples destined
for England filled up thirteen railcars; tomatoes
packed eight hundred crates. A schoolhouse sprouted
beside the vegetable fields. Old man Ferguson
sold his fruit stand to one Henry Kamiya,
who moved into the former express office
next door to the Lake Worth Produce Company.
The colonists adopted American dress:
small girls in lace petticoats posed for photos,
boys in knickers brandished child-sized swords.
But Cuban-grown pineapples sold for less:
tomato blight withered the crop on the vine.
Even the citrus trees died. One by one,
the colonists abandoned the ruined fields,
the panting heat and steaming afternoon rain,
the wood huts lacking proper Japanese baths,
the alligators bellowing all night.
Henry Kamiya bought a stained glass window
for the Methodist Church in Delray Beach:
it wasn’t enough to mitigate the sin
of failing at the American dream. Kamiya
returned to Japan after the war, but ordered
that his ashes be placed on his wife’s grave
in West Palm. By then, nothing was left of Yamato
except the name, which means “great harmony”
and many other things in Japanese:
there’s no truth to the rumor that it came
from the Japanese way of saying “tomato.”
Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards, 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist, and two chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Subtropics, and many others. Young is also the translator of Two Poems by Inna Kabysh; her translations of Russian and Russophone authors have won prizes in international competitions and been published widely in the U.S. and abroad; several have been made into short films. Young is a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow and currently serves as the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, Virginia. More at katherine-young-poet.com.