May 10, 2009

Review by Anne McDuffie

BELOVED COMMUNITY: THE SISTERHOOD OF HOMELESS WOMEN IN POETRY
A WHEEL Anthology


Whit Press
1634 Eleventh Avenue
Seattle, WA 98122
ISBN 978-0-9720205-5-8
2007, 247 pp., $17.95
www.WhitPress.org

Beloved Community takes its title from Raymond Carver’s late poem, “Last Fragment”:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

In this anthology, WHEEL—the Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League— has assembled an impressive array of poems, culled from the chapbooks they publish annually. WHEEL is, by its own definition, a “scrappy little grassroots organizing effort of homeless and formerly homeless women in Seattle, Washington.” Some of the writers included in this collection have come through the classes WHEEL sponsors at day centers and through their StreetWrites program; some are workshop organizers and staff writers for Real Change, Seattle’s homeless newspaper. Their poems bring us the news from the “invisible side of the street,” as Anitra Freeman describes it in “In Memoriam,” a prose tribute to the members of WHEEL, and to all homeless women, who have died outside or by violence in King County.

There are gems here, some of them rough-edged and some of them flawed—but taken together, they dazzle. The strength of the collection is in its variety. Beloved Community allows us to know the women of WHEEL as individuals linked by circumstance rather than as “the homeless.” These poems are deeply personal and speak with exhilarating directness, delighting in strong rhythms, bold images and flashes of humor. “Mystics go / To the mountains,” writes Reneene Robertson in a poem by that name, “Because / Having visions / In the City / Can get you / Beat up / and Locked up.” “I can spell hypothermia,” writes Catherine M. Condeff in “38° and Raining,” “I can die from it, too.” In “Canned Boned Chicken,” Grace B.T. celebrates an unexpected windfall with verses that sing off the page:

I got one pack of Bugler
and a twelve pack of beer
I’m gonna sit down
and make me a meal
I’ll have to get me this box
Just my lucky day
Canned boned chicken, USDA

Many of these poems are portraits, or memorials, or both. Crysta Casey’s “Man Overboard” and “Self-Portrait” offer glimpses into the conflicted mind of a lover who is both artist and Vietnam veteran. He’s someone I might have passed on the sidewalk countless times, without knowing that the man who “…isn’t even / aware that he’s crossing / the street” might have his mind on what he’d paint next (“he likes looking at people: fat bodies, skinny bodies, sagging breasts and butts…”) or that in painting his self-portrait, he revealed eyes that

…suffered the sorrow
of a drafted man
who didn’t want to kill
and later met the refugees,
strung electric wire
for the relatives of those
he bombed.

In “On Our City Streets,” Marion Sue Fischer asks whether a young woman who lies bleeding on the sidewalk is “[d]ry-eyed, with confidence / or is it the energy of anguish?” These poems surprise and succeed by close observation, doing justice to complex, conflicted, emotions and opening up private experience to reveal yet another facet, another face, of poverty. I was unprepared for Carol Falliman’s mixed emotions on leaving the shelter for her own apartment (“Overcoming the Fear”)—her sorrow that other women don’t share her good fortune overshadows any pleasure she might take in a fresh start, and the residual insecurity of homelessness is “a mark that can’t be erased.” Other poems made clear to me some of the complications and indignities of getting by. In Kathleen Mitchell’s “T.P.,” a woman spends an hour on the bus to save a few cents on toilet paper. In “Fire Hoarder,” Reneene Robertson describes a man “[s]acrificing / [o]ne future fire” when he can’t beg a match to preserve the few he has left.

Some, like Dee Ann Ferguson, write to “…acknowledge the beauty I would see all around / if I still had a home[,]”(“Perceptions”). Life on the street is blunting, and a number of the poets here reveal that numbness is, to them, worse than pain. Marion Sue Fischer’s “Sad Today…: To Robin” offers insight in a few short lines:

Sometimes
Sadness/wells/up
FILLS the emptiness
and
Gives me comfort

Most of these poets are represented by a single poem, or two or three, linked to their full name if they could be found to give permission, just to a first name and last initial if they could not. I found myself repeatedly turning back to Anitra Freeman’s “In Memoriam” while their voices were still echoing in my ear, to read through the list of women who have died, to note the unsettling frequency of the phrase “unknown cause of death” and even more unsettling known causes, and to compare their ages to my own. For some, the poems in this book are their only legacy.

One of the pleasures of this book is a real and satisfying sense that the work sustains both the writer and the larger community. Poet Tess Gallagher wrote, in her essay, “My Father’s Love Letters”:

…perhaps when you are an emotional refugee you learn to be industrious toward the prospect of love and shelter. You know both are fragile and that stability must lie with you or it is nowhere. You make a home of yourself. Words for me and later poems were the tools of that home-making.

The WHEEL Women’s Empowerment Center and StreetWrites workshops operate on precisely this principle, and the idea that “in relating as unique and creative individuals we make—and mend—our communities.” Or as Anitra Freeman puts it, in her poem, “Words”:

These words are blood,
chips of white bone.
These words have stripped the flesh from your back,
and they can rebuild it.

It is never
only words.

“The greatest act of wisdom,” she writes in “Credo,” “is to live without easy answers, or even without answers at all, / in order to live with more heart.” These poems have a lot of heart, and together they point the way to the kind of community where we all have the chance to get what we want from this life: to be seen, to be known, to be beloved.

____________

Anne McDuffie lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. Her work been published or is forthcoming in Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction, Colorado Review, American Book Review, Rattle and A River and Sound Review. She can be contacted at anne@annemcduffie.com.

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