Whose Words These Are (23): Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell (24 min mp3)

“Looking in” by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is an oil almost six feet wide, in the collection of Partners in Health.

Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell is a Haitian-American artist in prose, paint and poetry. She speaks to us a poem about the January earthquake, in which the sky, it seemed, let go of the Christ statue that had looked over her childhood; God let go of his son’s hand as the roofs of Port-Au-Prince collapsed on her city.

Marilene Phipps Kettlewell is a visual artist, too, celebrated for her brilliant impressions of Haiti’s street life, its voodoo temples, its spirit life.

And then, in a spooky coincidence, on the very day of the earthquake, January 12, she got the news that her book of Haiti stories, titled “Company of Heaven,” had won the University of Iowa award for short fiction.

She is telling us about a large landscape of memory and imagination — no small part of what the earthquake smashed. Her poem “Man Nini” is a glimpse of the Haiti of her childhood:

    Man Nini was queen of the coal kitchen,

    standing within six square feet of soot,

    in front of four pits glowing with embers,

    churning the bubbling bean sauce, beaming

    the yellow kernels of her smile at the chickens

    flapping in the loose ashes below, strung

    together by the feet with sisal,

    their furious claws resembling the old

    people’s toe nails. She sighed as she sat

    on a low straw chair, the heat-lacquered

    columns of her black legs folded in a squat,

    her soiled apron caught between her knees

    forming a valley just below the wrinkled

    mound of the belly, to sort out

    peas, the good, the diseased, though all

    grew round together in the same pod.

    When she took off the flowered scarf she wore,

    Man Nini’s hair resembled rice paddies,

    with traced avenues on her scalp that

    glistened like the moist red earth

    of Kenskoff Mountain in soft fog. The remnants

    of frizzy white down were gathered

    into inch-long, upright, puffed-up braids

    which, in the darkness of the windowless

    kitchen, seemed the luminous gathering

    of her ancestors’ will-o’-the-wisps, filled

    with murmurs about the secrets of her strength,

    joy, and the sweetness of the food she cooked.

This is the third in a group of conversations with poets, word-artists, about a catastrophe beyond words: the earthquake in Haiti this January. Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space. Tomorrow, performance poet Eli Marienthal.

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  • Susan Emanuel

    Wonderful image and poem, Marilene!

  • Tessa Phipps Munro

    Marilene, your words are so powerful. Thank you for sharing your work with the world. “They amputated themselves to become visible to the world…” touched me so deeply. My heart is with all Haitians.

  • Marilene poignant = lovely to find you, listen to your voice sunburnt, corn husk hoarse [was it a sacrificial offering –

    an appeasement of the Elements – destroying your exquisite painting of Erzulie – remember?] Ashe and _/l\_

  • Je vous admire.