Whose Words These Are (21): Afaa Michael Weaver on Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Afaa Michael Weaver (20 min, 9 mb mp3)

Afaa Michael Weaver leads off a week of poets’ reflections on the catastrophe in Haiti. His poem “Port-au-Prince” is not “news analysis;” it’s a stab at fitting disaster news, now two months old, into a context between heart and history.

Port au Prince

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where

there is hatred, let me sow love.”

–St. Francis of Assisi

If the sky were to crack, the floor of heaven

would be pearl white, a bed of ice after snow

in Montreal, asylum from Port au Prince,

the children under sheets, stiff and undone

near cement walls filled with sand on the bottom

stoops of Mary, Blessed Mother Erzulie,

complex chance of a soul torn from Ile Ife,

in the rubric of the crucifix planted on shores

of empires–

The seam of the spirit tears in earthquakes,

ripping the cloth of the breath, suspending

every wish you had in that single moment,

the wet mess of your heart suddenly slapping

the tiny plan of earth growing from the Earth,

some alien presence driving the real thing,

the evil of The Enlightenment, husbandry

of farmers ranking goats with black children,

ledgers for the wealth of banks, investments,

hedge funds, Blackberrys, joys we hold onto

like the monstrous Coscos on the hill

twisting the roots of our hearts, nowhere

to run, to scream in the coming apart,

human bodies slapped inside human bodies

pierced with jagged things, rocks and glass,

zombies the mute saints, pious and solemn,

the French language humming to itself.

“les negres ne sont pas Francaise”

Writing a letter, plotting to buy Louisiana,

the pen of Jefferson moves to contain what

cannot be contained, collapsed buildings,

family photographs lying on broken bodies

sticking their tongues out in the rubble,

reporters walking by with microphones,

selling news as if it were cheese and bread.

@Afaa Michael Weaver

Perspective is everything. Michael Weaver worked in the steel factories of Baltimore (the world of “The Wire”) for 15 years before he finished his college education and declared himself a poet — and before “Afaa,” the Ibo honorific meaning “oracle,” was added to his name. Afaa Michael Weaver is widely published and traveled by now, a professor at Simmons College in Boston, though he identifies himself still as “a working-class African American poet from Baltimore.”

I’m coming from what is popular knowledge among black people about the significance and the position of Haiti, which is that we generally understand that Haiti’s position is a matter of being punished for speaking back, for daring to be rebellious. There are all kinds of complexities around the history of Haiti. But it goes back to the original problem presented to the American government of how to deal with the first successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere and how to keep that information and that inspiration away from black Americans. It haunted Jefferson. It framed his national policy, and remnants of that national policy are still present. Jefferson came to a final conclusion that he hoped that the expansion of America’s economy and national policy beyond its own borders would somehow compensate for the contradictions in the democratic ideal. So Haiti’s situation begins there. This earthquake seemed to another in a long list of problems. So I had this kind of sad image of being punished for talking back.

Afaa Michael Weaver with Chris Lydon at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Cambridge, March 9, 2010.

Afaa Michael Weaver’s reading resumes our series with poets, “Whose Words These Are.” What our first score of poets confirmed is that they are still our “unacknowledged legislators,” as Shelley famously elected them. They’re the ones you can trust, after all, to tell you that your coat is on fire, or your country. Tomorrow: Fred Marchant.

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  • Loretta J. Williams

    Profoundly moving word images. In my mind and body I heard an accompanying collage of improvisational music of the African diaspora speaking to the onslaughts – and sustaining resiliencies. Thank you, Afaa Michael Weaver!