This atypical article for the Harvard International Review includes two poems from the South-Asian art and activist collaboration, Darkmatter, a group that is committed to an art practice of gender self-determination, racial justice, and movement building using the media of poetry & polemic, tweet & tirade. Below are two poems, 'When Brown Looks in the Mirror and Comes Out White' by Alok Vaid-Menon, and '9/11: A Love Story' by Janani Balasubramanian.
When Brown Looks in the Mirror and Comes Out White
by Alok Vaid-Menon
the first time he called me gay and I googled it
and was convinced that i found myself and was convinced that i found myself
in the images on a screen:
a white man, a big city, and happiness
(or, two truths and a lie)
we do not yet have a word in the English language
vulnerable enough to hold the loneliness of being
thirteen years old and inheriting a body
that has been choked into silence
but we try our best don’t we?
use ‘love’ to tell the story of
limbs searching for holes in one another
to push the trauma through
sew it shut
use ‘equal’ to heal from that deadly
combination of scar and stare
that body beaten into difference
use ‘gay’ to cross the
distance between a heart and a television screen
a flower and a fist
her and him
we do not yet have a word to capture
that initial sense of recognition:
of a body becoming coherent to itself,
an object becoming subject,
brown becoming white.
so instead i am telling you a story
about a ‘body’ and a ‘loneliness’
who grew up together in a small town and a dark night
and clung onto a word like a mirror
until he could not distinguish himself from his own
did you experience my pain or
did i reflect it on you
to feel a little bit less alone?
we do not yet have a word in the english language
capable of accounting for all of the hurt
hurt people do
because this is not what english is for.
you see english is for hurting.
english has no words to discuss
itself because then maybe it would have to stop speaking.
in the mean time we will use
‘colonialism’ instead of ‘gay’
and maybe things will start making
definition: incoherence is resistance
in a world where your representation is regarded more seriously than your reality
definition: white men dance on stolen land and call it activism.
send wedding invitations to the rest of us who
hate ourselves enough to attend
the shooting stars we wished
upon as kids have landed and come out
the engagement rings our country
flings across the ocean are nooses in drag
(who is the terrorist now?)
4. HUMAN RIGHTS
when hilary clinton tells the world that
gay rights are human rights after she supports
the war (definition: slaughter) against iraq (definition: homophobic)
and talks about economic justice (synonym: let them eat credit!)
for her 2pm rally
then invites Wall Street to her 4pm private tea
there are no contradictions here
she is speaking in english,
a language determined to
deny difference and digest
the millions of flavors of queer across the world
and cough up ‘LGBT’
spit out ‘mine’
and we let this happen
because we have been taught to romanticize the violence
of seeing a white body on a screen and pretending like it represents us
like the way we will cry when hilary tells us she will fight
for LGBT rights
(SYNONYMS: torture, bomb, annihilate)
and think that we are saving our people across the world because of it
(SYNONYM: doing more harm than good)
maybe we believe her because we are left
speaking this language of loneliness
holding on to it like a mirror
so that we are still walking around trying to find ourselves in one another
(i mean colonizing the entire world and
calling it building community)
we do not yet have a word in the english language
to apologize and actually mean it
i am giving you this brown in all of its
in all of its incoherence,
in all of its terror and loneliness
and i hope it translates
across the silence
of an entire country
9/11: A Love Story
By Janani Balasubramanian
This is my first 9/11 in New York.
For some time I’ve been wanting to ride the subway around
looking for the Statue of Liberty
& Ellis Island
& the 9/11 memorial.
These great tragic things—
these catalogs of sad stories,
of power and hurt and how we got here.
This propaganda made of everyone’s tears
awash in gunpowder.
I keep complaining that New York is a difficult place
for my imagination,
that it never can reach beyond the money
and the skyscrapers.
This summer I watched love stories come and go
and people talk and talk about justice,
and my friends swallow their whole hearts
and talk about how New York
is a difficult place for their grieving.
It’s been a summer of endless love.
Not that any of us
are in love and loving it
but that it is at least an endless love,
that we are in love and hating it,
and having trouble stretching our imaginations
beyond all this hurt and how we got here.
I keep falling in love & saying this will be the last time.
After this time we will both take off our clothes
and say yes I saw you like this, naked,
and we probably can’t walk side by side
without remembering the way this story ended
the way it began
or wanting to hold hands
and choke each other
but there are things other than
all this love to do
and the mournings after.
My friends keep telling me they accidentally
broke someone else’s heart.
I ask if they at least returned all the pieces.
Heartbreak in New York is so familiar like an old friend.
It is all over the train lines,
as visible and annoying as bed bugs.
The subway is a great catalog of great sad stories
moving and swishing around this great sad city.
It is the perfect place to site a national tragedy.
It was a perfect target for that plane:
the falling bodies,
the gift shop,
the two beams of light,
A perfect story.
Ground zero empty
in a city full of monuments
to great sad stories.
A crater where the two ventricles in the
heart of New York City
used to be.
There is something so grounding
in believing the sacredness of your own tragedies.
I watch heartbroken people in this city hurt each other
and cry and beat their fists against the wind.
I watch America invent a heart
call it New York,
beat its fists against the whole entire world.
Like I’m sorry,
it hurts to be me.
This is why I bombed your whole country.
Heartbreak is torturous.
This is why I tortured all of your people.
It is hard finding room to breathe
under all these splintered glass ashes.
It is why I funded an open air prison,
called it Israel,
suffocated an entire people.
It is hard to hold all these people and their stories
in my borders.
It is why I keep killing them.
It makes me sad that you don’t call anymore.
It is why I wiretapped all your conversations.
Like I’m sorry
I lost something
and I never learned to grieve it
so I’m going to build a haunted house,
call it Guantanamo Bay.
Like watching your every move
is my way of showing you I still love you.
Like I keep patting you down
hoping you’ll sleep with me again.
Like I keep sending you love letters
that you call drones
and it kills me that you never read them.
This story is so convincing
because we have all lived it
because it is heartbreak
because it doesn’t matter what America does
because America had its heart broken
and it was called New York City
and there were two perfect pieces
that stretched up to the sky
that got blown to bits
that the War on Terror
is just America totally afraid of its own sadness.
Falling in love isn’t so different from suicide
or from the bodies falling from the two halves
of New York City’s heart in 2001.
Victimhood is a kind of chain reaction.
There are tears at the nucleus of every empire,
salty and fresh like the center of a heart exploding
into a mushroom cloud.
It is the new Manhattan project:
instead of bombs at the center,
we are making great catalogs of sad sad stories
and selling them for blood.
This is the story of empire
and how we got here
and all the evenings we spent crying alone along the way.
Mourners sift and come through Ground Zero
with candles lit like they are trying to burn old love letters.
And we’re all mourning together for America
because it gives us a place to put all the tears
we are trying to shed for ourselves.
A nation is built from the hearts of very sad people
searching for arms,
broken and refilled with gunpowder and uranium,
because it is hard for them to imagine
beyond their own grieving.
Because there is no sadness that has this kind of hollow
when you bury yourself Zero-deep in it.
Because we are so afraid of living with our own sadness
that we keep killing everyone else.