Corona in Prison

I’ve been receiving frankly terrifying letters from friends in prison about the malignant neglect that has been causing exploding numbers of coronavirus cases there. And last night caught the new episode of Last Week Tonight that exposes some of the horror.

Though it seems after several months of the virus, with virtually no guidance from the White House, individual states have begun to figure out how to protect the elderly in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, the people in jails and prisons have been left to fester, and the staff, who go home at night, are spreading hot spots in communities all over this prison-happy land.

The federal Bureau of Prisons, left in the hands of Trump’s lackey Attorney General Bill Barr, could care less. But here, nothing I can say can match this blog post from a friend in a BOP facility.

Or this episode of Last Week Tonight.

PS – Just got this hand-drawn and colored political cartoon in the mail, a collaborative effort by my friend and his fellow prisoners, in a unit of 1200 where 700 are positive for coronavirus, and where two of his friends there have died from it:

Blue Ridge Parenthesis: a poem

For the first time since corona, Chris and I ventured out for a weekend getaway, staying at an Air BnB cottage on a hillside near Bedford, VA. She surprised me Sunday morning with Father’s Day gifts that included a watercolor set and Gary Snyder’s zen poetry collection Danger on Peaks. Which, over coffee, led to this:

On the ridge a neighbor
tests his semi-automatic:

Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!

Funny how it’s then
you notice quiet
a blank sheet seepingly
watercolored by
a distant rooster’s crowing
a mourning dove’s
wooden flute reply
and far down on the valley floor
the trailing hoot of a train.

Silent as a shadow
a skink with a brilliant blue tail
edges onto the deck:

Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!

Space Aliens…poem

This poem is in my new book collection Yearnful Raves, and strikes me as appropriate to the current situation:

Space Aliens Learning English Come Upon the Dictionary Page that Begins with Colonel Blimpism and Ends with Colorway - a poem

Space Aliens Learning English Come Upon the Dictionary Page that Begins with Colonel Blimpism and Ends with Colorway

Discovering that
a phenomenon
of light or perception
is how we distinguish
otherwise identical
things, and that this
inflection named
color is often used
among humans
in that way.

Though some are
color-blind, it seems
and others call others
colored, and those
without color – because
the definition of color
excludes the phenomenon
of light we call white
these whites block
those with color
(But why? And how?)
from participating
in various activities.

Color bar/color line.

Why would the colorless
do such a thing?

And how do they
distinguish anyway?
Is that what this device
a colorimeter is for?

Are there colorists
who decide?  Do they
fear those with something
called color temperature?

Blackbodies that can emit
radiant energy to evoke color? 

That’s it!  (They say.) 
We’ve got it.  The key’s
right here on this page.
Now we know what moves
them.  And the word we’ll
use when we go down
to colonize.

Why this White Virginia Boy Feels So Proud Today

Today is my proudest as a native Virginian, thanks to the announcement by Governor Northam (another born and raised Virginia boy) ordering the removal of the 6-story tall monument to Robert E. Lee in downtown Richmond.

The decision could not have come easy for the governor, knowing that a vocal minority of his constituents will rage, but also because in doing this he has needed to evolve his own thinking, which for most of us would have been the heavier lift.  I know, because like the governor, I am a white guy of a certain age raised amidst tales of the noble, daring, underdog General Lee, a native Virginian cheered by ragged troops as he passes on his good grey steed Traveler.  Like the governor, I underwent three years of Virginia history classes in elementary school, reading text books that not only never mentioned the extermination of the original Virginians, but that substituted the word “servants” wherever the phrase “enslaved persons” should have gone.  I even remember an amateur minstrel show at the white high school’s auditorium on the 100th anniversary of Virginia’s secession from the Union, where white leaders in our community dressed in black face and ragged tuxedos.  I played a role in that play as the son of a Confederate soldier, and in my skit ran onstage to my hoop-skirted mother shouting, “Father!  Father!  Here comes father!” to announce his return from the war. 

It was not until 8th grade that our county fully integrated its schools, and my re-education began.  I am grateful for that.  Looking back, maybe I should say that was my proudest day.  Because that’s when I began to walk the path the governor too has followed.  My first black teacher was Irvin McQuaige, a tough love fireplug of a football coach who made it clear to us that nothing he was putting us through at practice compared to the cotton fields he worked as a child.  He spoke in Bernie Mack staccato, made sure our integrated football team set an example of racial equity and comradeship for the school, and that we were undefeated in district play.  (Coach McQuaige later became a beloved high school principal in our county.) 

Some of my white friends left for the local military school, segregated at the time, but most stayed on.  It was the early 1970s.  The black students led walkouts when administrators made particularly bone-headed (ie, racist) decisions, but our county got through the era intact.  That our sports teams won championships, setting shining examples of interracial teamwork, helped. Black and white students alike are friends to this day.

I think we all know what happened when Governor Northam went off to study medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. That photograph in black face will forever haunt him.  But his journey from that day to this mirrors my own and that of so many other white Virginians.

I’m a little younger than the governor.  Went north to college, where I spent a semester-long independent study reading all of Faulkner, whose entire Nobel Prize-winning oeuvre is a wrestle with slavery and its aftermath in the Deep South, and where I studied history under Professor David Herbert Donald.  Hearing this barrel-chested white scholar dissect and disprove with plain evidence lies I’d been raised on about the Lost Cause and the happy servants and what people I knew back home still called “The War of Northern Aggression,” all with a Mississippi drawl, frankly blew my mind.  Professor Donald taught me what history is all about (he almost made me a historian).  History is about facing the evidence, about wiping away cobwebs of myth and self-serving lore.  It’s about reading the ledgers of humans sold alongside cattle and the postcards showing lynchings all over the South.  It’s about letting the facts guide your opinions.  What a concept.

Which brings us to this past week, when everyone watched the slow and agonizing death of one man beneath the knee of another, and when the steadily growing protests across the country (and the world) made the white knees on the necks of black, brown and indigenous Americans over all these centuries plain for anyone to see and maybe finally reckon with.  Governor Northam saw it, and it changed him.  It pushed him along a path he’s been on his whole life.  The governor had already signed legislation that has made life easier for under-served Virginians, but until yesterday he hadn’t taken any step that might answer that yearbook photograph, that might punctuate the achingly slow revelation so many of us white Virginians have journeyed towards in our own lives.  Yes, there is so much work to do. Yes, our black friends are like, what took you so long? Yes, it’s only a symbol. But what a symbol! He’s done it now.  The Lee statue is coming down.  I’m so proud.

One last thing. If you were not able to listen to the entirety of Governor Northam’s remarkable announcement, I highly recommend it. One of the most moving speeches I’ve heard in a week of moving speeches:

Paired Viruses: a poem

A virus can’t act alone.
Needs your participation.
Just a burr of contagion
sucked in on the air you breathe,
that finds a weak link, a chink in a cell,
then incubates until the fever burns.

Clots your brain, swells your lungs,
inflames the hearts of children
too young to understand.

With this one, we have carriers
who infect others but never suffer themselves
and super-spreaders who sicken whole crowds
as if spewing from megaphones.

How it preys on the weak, the under-served,
those frayed at the end of their rope.

One thing, though, some recover.
Yet speak of its tortures with awe.
How it knelt on their throats and chests
until they gasped their mama’s name.

A virus is a frightful thing.
A virus can’t act alone.

May 2020: a poem

The month began with ventilators
the last resort for people unable
to breathe.

The month ended with outrage
the last resort for people chanting
I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!

The month began with people marching
for the right not to wear a mask,
then at the beaches preening
for their right to party on.
Last night in the streets of America:
I can’t breathe!  I can’t breathe!

We’re suffocating.
A knee on our neck
is what the month was about.
The virus is real and a metaphor too.
I can’t breathe!  I can’t breathe!