We play billie holiday at the abortion clinic. Billie Holliday & Hot 98.7, the best hip-hop you can get in the chemical valley. The music drowns out the protestors prayer-screams; even the clouds dance, the pavement gyrates. It is the first day of spring and the daffodils stand straight as children anxious to be older. We are clinic escorts in west-by-god-by-god-virginia at the last abortion provider in the entire state. The Women's Health Center provides abortion care to patients who have no where else to go twice a week, wednesdays thursdays. They find a way to fund procedures for those who can't pay the steep bill, common since West Virginia outlawed the use of medicaid funds to pay for abortions. They are doing god's work.
We hold up a walmart-blue tarp over the google-stock-image baby posters as the cars as slow crawl in to the fenced-in parking lot, the protesters surrounding us like stuck insects. Escorts weave out of the clinic and over to the women with open black umbrellas to prevent the protesters from filming the patient's faces. Their faces are pinched, lined with worry and strained from long drives. We hold them for a moment in quiet benevolence; "you are blessed", we say with soft hands clutching their tattooed elbows and turtle-curved backs, "you are blessed" we say with our spines stiff as limestone, our mouths straight and our chins held high.
The protestors, the anti-choicers, the forced birthers, explode like a rupturing muscle behind the parking-lot fence. They wield their babies like odd weapons, their eyes full of worry and confusion as the shrill prayers interrupt the lego-castle construction and bouncey-ball toss. They form a ring and pray like boxers, beat their bibles against the sun-ripe road as if they will usher up hell to come and swallow us. They ask us if our mother's know we're here. My mother held my hand when I had an abortion, made me soup and told me I was so good, so worthy.
The women walk out with slow feet and unswollen bellies. Billie croons "God Bless the Child that got his own, that got his own," with a sweet rasp that rings through the march sky like cicadas. The light lingers on the women as they walk to their cars, filters over their pink crew-necks and strong shoulders blades, flows deep into the sweet summer they still have inside of them, through the promise they have made to a future that they can bear, that they can own.
it was three days after the last snow
of the past her welcome winter
and the fog felt up the shoulders of peters mountain,
stood between the pawing of our threadbare hands
like a cottony ocean,
like the glistening insides of the milky oats
just opening their long mouths
on the crooked elbow of the trail
crisp slipping beneath us,
the slow click of your
long bootprints against the mud,
the forest scratching
the wet second skin of our plastic parkas,
the pipe ringing close like a dull scream,
the fog breathing closer, gathering the crease of her damp dress,
your hand unraveling,
the white pines roaring under sheets of limestone,
how quickly the legs can forget
which direction they are going,
the mountain threatening to swallow
the bitter and cold and half clutched hook of our bodies
whole as a morning swallows a dream.
what I once thought of walking
splinters under the husk of
a grey sonoran moon
in the mesquite desert.
when the walkers cross
they powder their footsteps,
drink a silent coffee
and hum a slow prayer
that sings through the metatarsals,
through the stars sieved between
our hard kingdoms.
the helicopters clatter up the long night,
flash out like open-eyed mosquitoes,
la migra hunting,
the desert howling back
like a holy animal.
the walkers unbend their feet,
cover the blisters with wax and benediction,
wait with us with low smiles and bright belt buckles,
cook tortillas and carry the map of this
heavy planet on their backs.
I once thought it fluid,
the simple slip of thighs
over miles of roots and insect and dirt.
I once thought it unmolested and eternal,
smooth as a curl of sand,
clear as a striping river.
There are bones in the navel of this
desert only the jackrabbits know.
There are walkers who's steps
pat on forever, stubborn as the
mouthy horizon, as the august rain.
the honeyscukle scorches.
I collapse into the pool of your
hairy belly &
the crab-skin of your sun-split
forearms & the
seashells crinkle benath us
like glittery ghosts &
the sand is grey with
firework dust & the ocean
sparkles and swallows the
pasty-ankles of well-fed children
and the women wear
gushing beach bags and
shiny mosquito eyes
and the sharks circle slowly,
wait for the blush of blood in salt,
and the flag hangs like a flat scar
against the rosehips and
you and I trace our kid curses
in the pulp of muscles of seaweed
and the big sad aches on,
and the camps grow crowded
and the oil war whistles
and the sky suddenly explodes.
i'll make you buried & full of fury,
you dinosaur bone
you knot of rags to kill the wort
i'll make you gone sudden
as the arctic
i'll make you swallowed
as a wound in a tourniquet
knife in a homeless sheath
such deft projectionist
embroiderer of aortas
valve & ashes
snow & starbit
boiled up sun
husk of twilight
body with a heart beating
slow as a long eclipse
this marbling of creek-cut-through rhodedendron
these licks of lichen & irish moss,
these trails buckling through sandstone and plantain
these screams thick like nothing like childs mouths
these screams more like screech owl & wampus cat
these stories of them died at bad branch
that place where the river opens her wide legs
that flushes out flotsam & bristle fern
that what what you get for all your bluster,
that what you get for your climbing to the slick top
wall by your lonesome
you remember you are half-blood but mostly water
you remember you are half-blood but mostly water
We clutch hands, form a circle around the linoleum floor and metal tables. Our heads bow in tandem, like hammers on a xylophone.
"God bless the lord for letting us share with you this burden," an old white woman with a silver cross around her neck says, raising her vein-y hands to the fluorescent church ceiling in Norton, Virginia.
"Amen, amen," a sweet kind silence fills the room, like maple syrup pooling onto forest ground.
"It gets so lonesome, y'know," one of the black women who has traveled 8 hours to see her baby in the prison around here says, "It gets so lonesome carrying the weight of all this"
We chew on homemade mac n' cheese and red velvet cake. The children are quiet, fumble plastic forks on paper plates, stare at their phones. The woman from Norfolk who has come here to see her son Angel, who's locked up at Red Onion, rubs her rough hands together.
"I want to sleep, these waiting rooms get me so tired, what with all that dim light and damp air." She proceeds to tell me about her dreams, how she often dreams of parking lots and teeth. I knod my head, say I am so sorry she must get so worn, traveling so far just to get here.
"They moved him because his uncle became a C.O. at the place he was at before. Didn't want him to be that close to his kin, I guess."
Her two grandchildren place their elbows on the table. They are in 9th and 10th grade. When I ask how often they have had to make this trip they say four times. The vans only go twice a year. Their Dad has been locked up for who knows how long.
Almost everyone who has someone to visit a brother or son or husband at Red Onion or Wallens Ridge, the two prisons that rib the Kentucky border deep in the pockets of the Virginia mountains, almost everyone who must drive six or eight or ten hours to come here, almost everyone is black. This reality sits down in the room like a fat rain, heavy but unmentioned. The almost entirely white churchgoers reference salvation and christ and family when they speak but never race. They don't have to. The situation, the harsh reality, is obvious.
It is like a new underground railroad, the lengths we have to go through to let these people in Richmond and Lynchburg and Roanoake talk to their family members. It is beautiful, to try and build that bridge. So often Appalachian and urban poc are isolated from one another, so often systemic and interpersonal racism prevents white appalachians from building solidarity with black families dealing with the realities of mass incarceration. But it is a bridge that should never have to be built. It is a burden that should never have to be created or shared.
No one should have to live out their days in a cage. No one should have to watch their children grow old through the dirty glass of a visitation room. No one should have to call a radio station to send a message to their child. We are born free.
This poem references one of my favorites: Jack Spicer's "Psychoanalysis: An Elegy"
What are you thinking?
I am thinking I've been no use since the day I was born
always picking chickweed at the softball games
always burning the rice and breaking the bedframe.
I am thinking of the taut ropes of snow
that used to roll into new england pine trees
how I would stuff the sharp crystals in my mouth
and fill up my belly with quiet.
I am thinking of the syrupy rivers forking under ice sheets
and our always too-bare, raw-beet hands,
our faces beaming under a sun odd and metallic,
our bodies barely born.
what are you thinking now?
I am thinking of every man who took my
little hands in his like the
bow of a violin, my fingers half rigid,
a thing to whittle a piece of night through.
I am thinking of Annie Jane's hands
cupping the face of every wildflower in Virginia,
the slide of root and stamen into brown vial,
the particularity made of naming,
their mouths wet-green and full of medicine.
what are you thinking?
I am thinking of each time
I let a stranger tattoo a crumble of dusk
on my body.
How you could feel it, the rhythm of their blood
through the whir of drill & ink.
what are you thinking now?
I am thinking of sturgill simpson
sounding like a weathervane on a
I am thinking of Annie Jane's boots
and the miles of of seeds they must
have planted in their dust
I am thinking of the hollow space between your thumbs
and wishing I could breathe there forever.
you climb out the mouth of the gulf
and meet the wide molars of the missippi,
the wet gums of earth swelling against
the worn body of our beaten deltas,
our mountains sable-toothed & half-magic,
our rivers we might have lost long ago.
you open a rough throat and threaten to swallow our cities.
the people of texas burn citronella candles,
learn how to see in the dark.
the loose thumbs of garage-rusted kayaks &
cajun combat boots and huge-hearted mothers
come back again to save us,
like they always do,
like we weren't always already drowning.
these days I try to breathe even & keep my car clean.
these days I comb the cobwebs out my hair & the cicadas off the front porch,
bake the bread till she gets tough & tender,
stretch my back against miles of nettle & bed & pavement &
try to remember that we must be both wild & still.