“The Spinster’s Almanac”: Poetic Advice for a Terrible Summer -The Toast

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urlPlease email all questions you would like poetry to answer via advice@the-toast.net, with “Spinster’s Almanac” in the subject line.

Dear Spinster,

Every day this summer I have gotten up to read the news with a sense of powerless dread. Bombs in Gaza, the lack of regard toward Ferguson and all the other communities where people of colour are executed by American cops, more missing Aboriginal women in Canada, tanks on the Ukrainian border, all of it is overwhelming and horrible and I feel so useless. What do I do with these feelings? How do I be good in such a world?

Oh, fretful reader, I understand. The planet feels like it’s on fire and the best many people have managed is pouring out a bucket of water. It’s easy to let the bad things in the world pile up in your heart and feel them only as an overwhelming blur of dread. Some of them may feel unknowable and far away. Some may hit way too close to home. If you are overwhelmed and can’t find a path through, I have some thoughts, which come to you today via Jamaal May’s poem “Man Matching Description” from his recent collection Hum.

Right from the title, with its law enforcement language, you know the news won’t be good. At first it’s hard to know where we are; the first stanza starts seemingly in the middle of a sentence: “Because the silk scarf could have cradled / a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet, / but was instead used in last night’s strangling.” From the grim premonition of the title, May takes us to a gentle image, but one presented in the subjunctive. The subjunctive is the verb mood that deals with the hypothetical, the imaginary, the thing supposed or hoped for but not fixed in time. Were you also obsessed with The History Boys as a young person? In the play-turned-movie they discuss the subjunctive at length as a conceit for examining history, but the characters also read a good deal of poetry, in which it can also be a powerful lens, taking the reader to a place of what-if to view official events in a suspended state of possibility. Who might the bearer of this scarf be?

May situates his readers with this silk scarf, a delicate neck, a baby swan, all in an ambiguous tense. This emphasizes that whatever comes next, the violence of misunderstanding and abusive power, the subject in this poem can always be someone delicate, who is or once was young and vulnerable, who in a simple scarf could be beautifully plumed. Let this poem make you feel vulnerable, Reader. Reach for your most comforting piece of clothing and remember how small you can be in this world. Extend that feeling outward.

Now we get to the strangling, and the poem becomes sinister again, clicking the title into place as the scarf becomes both a weapon and an excuse for a lazy misidentification. The “because” touches down: because of this matching scarf “it is possible” for this man who wears it (this black man, from what is to come, from the centring of black Detroiter identity in May’s work) “to marvel at the finish on handcuffs” as a cop approaches. Even in this moment of uncertainty and dread, May’s narrator takes in the tools of law enforcement with an eye for beauty, imagines them “pummeled by stones until shimmering.”

The poem repeatedly doubles the violence of police discrimination with the moments of beauty, softness, and vulnerability that the narrator experiences despite his treatment. The becauses create a tension that strings the sentences together—are they all a single because in response to an unasked question, or do they build on one another?

the flashlight that sears my eyes

is too perfect to look away.


Because a flashlight has more power

on a southern roadside than my name and blood

The second line above is in response to the because of the handcuff finish, but can also be read straight through to the next stanza, suggesting that the dazzling light and the power that wields it are thoroughly inseparable. Here is the crux of the poem: there is no separating beauty and brutality.

May uses the violence his narrator experiences to illuminate the tenderness of his humanity, but always emphasizing that violence is still dehumanizing. This is so important, Reader. I want you to see, as he does, the gentleness, the vulnerability of people upon whom violence is acted. But it’s also crucial to see how power resists and manipulates this seeing. When you scroll through news websites or listen to the news as you wash the dishes, think of who is described as powerful, as victimized, as liable. Don’t grant someone more humanity because they have the power to make themselves more visible—not abusers, not legislators, not the media monopolies that craft mainstream news, nor government spokespeople with easy justifications, nor cops who are allowed to lie and intimidate and kill, even when citizens have documented their lies and abuse.

May particularly emphasizes this in the next section:

Because a flashlight has more power

on a southern roadside than my name and blood

combined and there is no power in the very human

frequency range of my voice and my name is dead

in my mouth and my name is in a clear font on a license

I can’t reach for before being drawn down on—

May breaks his lines so that each one ends in a chilling declaration, emphasizing the feeling of reduction: the authority of a light over a human being, the loss of voice (whether to speak at all or to be heard by law enforcement), the sick irrelevance of innocent humanity and acceptable paperwork when violent power turns its light on him. The repetition of naming and how it’s taken away from the narrator emphasizes this dehumanization. In news journalism, as in history, those who are named tend to have their humanity emphasized over the unnamed (suffering, protesting, inconvenient) hordes. “Man Matching Description” like much of May’s poetry writes against that unnaming. It asserts identity, offering dignity and allowing readers to find community or to witness.

May then takes the reader back to the physicality of the scene, his protagonist thrown against the car, a baton

long against my window,

the gun somehow longer against my cheek,

the vehicle cold against my abdomen,

as my shirt rises, twisted in fingers

which creates claustrophobia, increasing the tension with the tangibility of weapons. The approach of the baton, the press of the gun, the twisted shirt now echo the scarf, instrument of strangling and excuse for this misidentification, pulling tighter. As a reader, you are a witness, and because the poem ends with events unresolved, May leaves space for you to insert your own experience, or simply exit the poem an accessory to racist abuse of power.

The final lines: “and my name is asked again—I want to / say, Swan! I am only a swan” echo both the delicate cygnet in the opening stanza and the narrator’s inability to give his name to the approaching cops. Every time I read this poem the end startles me again, with its beauty and strangeness. The narrator’s desire would insist the cops perform the search for beauty that he performs on them, with their cuffs and lights. It insists that he is vulnerable, that if he must be seen as matching an absurdly vague description, that he chooses a beautiful, unthreatening one. But it is also diminishing (“only a swan”), a shrinking of identity in a book of poems that expand and complicate identity.

In the end, this diminishment exemplifies how completely crucial polyphony is. Don’t stop at “Man Matching Description,” read all of Hum, read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, read tweets from the residence of Ferguson and Gaza. Read In Search of April Raintree and North End Love Songs and editorials by Aboriginal women in Canada about missing and murdered Aboriginal women there. Read Mahmoud Darwish and Suad Amiry. Read political activists and use what you learn. Write back to people in power (members of government, heads of institutions), but also hear what else is being asked for—fundraising, signal boosting, advocating in your own places of work, education, and community.

This is really what I want to tell you, reader. You can’t take on the bad feeling of the news cycle and only let it send you back to bed. The world doesn’t care how you feel. Bad feelings are nothing more than a starting place. We are talking about the power of collective voices in literature, building support for victims of violent oppression through this listening, disseminating, advocating for their voices, for what they are asking of the rest of us. About finding and joining voices that speak back to violence that’s hurt you. This changes the default story. There is always a story not being told. Help tell it.

Marika Prokosh is a writer from Winnipeg, Canada. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Existere, Rip/Torn and at The Toast. She reads, writes, and eats in an old blue house, and tweets about books and cooking mishaps.

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