Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Never Forget

Never forget the terrible speed of birds
skirting on top of green water
how they dip, then come out

unscathed. Never forget
their approach, afternoon shadows
onward rolling of clouds,

earth’s rotation unseen
through sunglasses,
imperceptible leaves falling from

redwoods standing the length of
the river. Never forget her
breath, finally stopped.

When they say “peace,” this is what they mean—
face pale like slab of stone, lips slipping
apart, forehead warm to the touch.

To black this out—
how it happened and memory of it
two separate experiences blended into one—

would be to deny her existence. A daughter once,
a daughter now, even with her
absence. Shadows from branches

will always cast across the water,
whether she is there
or not.

Open Season

My mother’s hand the last morning as I sit alone with her—
already gone, though forehead still warm, petunias

outside the window, orange pink, bruised
as those on the narrow path once outside our home.

Light clings like mud to her flaking skin,
revealing fine cuts near her mouth,

“like paper,” they said as if clearing it with us
a technical problem that could be solved somehow.

Threads of hair I brush off her face,
dark flooded eyes ignore all warnings,

mouth once an open smile now hollow cheeks
fashioning a skull, despite how she knew everything.

I cannot understand how this brain interruption
can happen— where is the dividing line—

her childhood, the past
her adulthood, the past

old age, the past. Her eyes
coals over an open fire

what she carries within
now fills this room.

Friday, March 10, 2017


My mother recited the ventricles of the heart,
anatomy learned in undergrad biology
sitting in her wheelchair—

lay alone all those nights
room shared with a screaming woman
imposed structure not suitable.

How is my own survival now different than hers
also at the mercy of those unsuited to their professions
like coyotes they stumble in a stink

guiding their charges across a desert.
In the nursing home, her diaper waiting half an hour for the R.A.
where chair, bed, lights, even air flow were determined,

TV cocked at an angle for a woman
who would never have one in her own bedroom,
who would hum to the classical station.

Her brain exploded,
ribbon torn—
and my mother, who loved form—

how could she form words,
electrical impulses bleating
in what was left of her brain.

Yet letters on a page, her handwriting was almost perfect
years of calligraphy instilled.
Survival is studied by scientists

but goes beyond adjustment, speed,
and adrenaline,
beyond fitting pegs in holes.

Saying Goodbye to Al Hackett

The memorial for family friend Al Hackett this past Saturday, December 3rd, took place at the Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley. As I sat in the row behind the Hackett kids and their mother Dorothy, I thought about how the event was meant for the family. Winston and Marty were tearful. Of course, for me, it brings back memories of losing my father (Sol Benjamin) suddenly in December 1999. And more recently, last year, my Mother, Thelma. So when I weep, it is not only for Al, but the loss of my parents.

Al was as much the fabric of my childhood as my father. They came from different places. Al from Texas, my father from Brooklyn, Al’s father a slave and my father’s father escaping the pogroms as a Russian Jew. When they came of age as young men, they fought for our country-- Al overseas in the Buffalo Soldiers, my father as an aircraft engineer stationed in North Carolina. And because of the war and the G.I. Bill, they both ended up in college, part of their moral compass, Al as a teacher, my father a social worker. Because there was such a thing as a moral compass then, as much as lapels, hats, sport jackets, and pipes—the fabric of men in our society at the time.

Growing up in a multi-cultural neighborhood as I did in Richmond in the 1960s was my normal. The street my family lived on -- Castilla Avenue-- was separated by an alleyway to the street where the Hackett family lived. l spent so much time in that house, as I did with other friends on those blocks, typical for that time. No play dates, just running into each other’s houses. But now I see that neighborhood as a unique environment. People of different ethnicities and origins. Dorothy Hackett pointed out the other day that both blue collar and white collar professions shared the neighborhood, as she alluded to diversity as much as people coming together to build a community. Al and Dorothy and my parents were dedicated to a world their own parents had survived, where they fought for freedoms.

Today, I see the Hacketts fairly regularly. I have always felt comfortable and at home with them. They are my family. At the memorial, what struck me was that other people echoed that feeling. Their family too.

Dear Al, I have been mourning your death, even as I know that at the end you were in discomfort, that you outlived your body and mind, not able to finally speak. You finally passed, the day after receiving your eldest daughter Tish who had come from Michigan to see you. You waited until after your 62nd wedding anniversary. I remember your 50th in 2005, and how you sang to Dorothy in your beautiful tenor voice. And that's how I think of you— at home, playing the piano and singing a jazz standard. Gentle, human, warm, funny, a long-winded story-teller. Your smile welcoming me into your home, saying "Hi, sweet." 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Branches Reaching

England, 1955

Ushers wearing white gowns part before the round stage,
brightly lit, ready for take off
glowing like a white snail on the trail of Mount Tam,
curved black line opening out against pearl.
Ravi Shankar sits in the center, Sitar resonating,
waves of sound a hand motioning.
Internal orange, oak tree branches, a brain
making a turn and then another, and
then follow with inner eye, elbows, then
cauliflower leaves emerging.

My mother is examined by Dr. Ravishankar
a woman in her early thirties
who speaks loudly
says you won’t be able to live alone
people have to watch her.
My mother hasn’t slept in two days
since found on her bathroom floor
incoherent, left side bruised
and flacid. And now, like a smudge on a mirror
she is seen as an old woman
the tree with its many branches
reaching incrementally.

Oak outside the hospital
a fifty year old brain against the sky
with roots that tip under a circular pathway.
Branches, metranomic fingers, grow,
pulse regular, blood circulating
late summer leaves a grey green.
The clot waited for this moment
after years of observation from a high balcony seat
opera glasses afloat, absorbing the drama.
Waited until now.

Friday, April 15, 2016

After Passover

Take away the knife
dishes at Passover washed
from the table, like the rocks
we placed on my father’s grave
when we lowered my mother in the ground.
Don’t expect a speech, throat

curled in on inappropriate flowers, throated
tight in someone’s hand, knife-
cut down the hill, not here, the ground
sacred according to the Rabbi, washed
like her body the day she died, grave
waiting without her wedding ring, no rock

but a ten dollar gold band from Brooklyn. Gone the rocking
chair at her father’s third floor walkup and throat
of lace her mother left behind, engraved
before my mother held a knife,
before she moved to London, washed
her hair in a sink when the Underground

stopped working. Maternal lineage grounded
her, the shore of Bremerhaven where a rock
broke open and her parents boarded a ship, washed
away from their deaths. But her own throated
words—what did they carry at the end? A knife
dropped at a dining table, grave

waiting? She knew, saying gravely
she couldn’t go on, leaning in a wheelchair, grounded
all day like a miscreant, no knife,
only fork and spoon, left hand rocking
back and forth, trying to clear her throat
to avoid choking, pureed food washed

in a blender. Before it came to this, she washed
her own hair for the last time, gravely,
the morning the clot throated
her brain. Stoppage of opera, grounded
from reading, where Elizabeth Bennet throws a rock
at her competitor. All the mail, I now open with a knife

though my throat sinks to the ground,
mud-washed in a dirty grave.
I throw rocks, brain open with a knife.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Whole Person: “Fruitvale Station” by Ryan Coogler (beware Spoiler alert!)

As Ryan Coogler says to interviewer Elvis Mitchell, on “The Treatment,” the idea is to show Oscar Grant as a whole person through the perspectives of those who he cared about—his mother, girlfriend, daughter, and friends. The 22 year-old African American man was many things to many people, and the fact that he did not make it through that night—New Year’s Eve of 2008—is a tragedy we experience intimately as viewers. But this is more than about Grant. It is about all Black men, how once they are arrested and taken to prison, often their lives are over.

The setting of the Bay Area is done realistically with a hand-held camera. In fact, it is hauntingly real for someone such as myself who grew up in the Richmond in a racially mixed neighborhood in the 1960s and has lived here her whole life. And doubly so for someone who teaches at Laney College in the heart of Oakland. Coogler’s hard and straight-forward camera style puts us directly in Grant’s viewpoint, seeing San Francisco from the Oakland side, the “mean” streets of Oakland as Oscar drives with the music turned up, the setting of a Bart train coming in from West Oakland, making the curve, and diving down underground towards Lake Merritt—it is all familiar. And in that, a local viewer is drawn in implicitly, in the sense that we are part of the tension—the East Bay/Bay Area effort to mix and integrate races and cultures amid the racial tension experienced every day. Coogler shows us the best of the Bay and the worst of the Bay. And whether we live here or not, we all become Oscar.

What makes this a work of art rather than a documentary needs to be stated. Coogler accessed court documents and cell phone footage of the shooting, had interviews with Grant’s family and friends. Fictionalized details mix with pieces from the actual day, and the effect is that the elements of good storytelling do not detract from actual events, but instead, build on them. More than the movie trailer shows, this story is not just about the death of Grant, but it is about the mundane events in a day—events which show character and reveal possible points of change.

The one flashback in this film, which the film maker uses to tie together some incidents later on, goes back five years earlier to Oscar’s incarceration in prison. Present day New Year’s Eve, he sits at the water’s edge in Oakland, looking across to San Francisco, a significant day in several ways. Square chunks of concrete jut out instead of rocks near the shore, evoking the East Bay’s industrial past. He remembers his mother’s visit to prison on New Year’s Eve, her birthday. Before coming into the prison visiting room, Oscar has to bend over naked, is searched everywhere, and finally, when he sits down across from his mother, he muses about life outside prison, deflecting her question of “What’s that on your face?” referring to the bruise below his right eye, a small shiner. She tries to get him to admit his guilt towards abandoning his girlfriend, and more importantly, his daughter, by being in prison. She holds him accountable. Finally, exasperated, she says it’s her last visit, and walks away down the hall, as guards restrain a shouting Oscar, upset because she would not hug him goodbye.

After the flashback, we are with Oscar again at the Bay, as he now stands above the water. He takes out the big bag of weed he has stashed under his shirt and pants, his belt holding it in, and turns it upside down and shakes it into the Bay. Clearly a turnaround for someone dealing drugs. Yes, he has lost his job at Farmer Joe’s grocery store. Yes, he feels like a disappointment to his girlfriend, who he admittedly cheated on, and to his mother and even grandmother, both who remind him of little things—don’t use your cell phone while driving, don’t call me while you’re working. He is trying to get it together, but it’s hard. He is playful with his daughter, and wants to please everyone, but he has an image to uphold with his friends, where he is expected to step up and be tough. It’s a tall order. He is just a person.

While the rest of the film is chronological, like many films it opens with frame of the end. In this case, it is from the perspective of a cell phone camera, the footage taken by someone standing inside the Bart train, capturing the activity on the Fruitvale station Bart platform. The cell phone wobbles and shakes, as the car is crowded. In the background we can hear rushes of sound, the horror of the crowd as the scene mounts. Then, the film cuts to the beginning of the day.

This is a single day-in-the-life, the last day of Oscar Grant, from the domestic early morning with his girlfriend and daughter, to Oscar’s dropping his daughter at day care and his girlfriend at her blue collar job, and all the hours in the day he spends driving around. He gets gas, yells at a car speeding away after running over a dog, and holds the dog in his arms as it bleeds to death. He shops for crabs for his mother’s birthday dinner, and we experience that family celebration in lingering shots, from the dinner preparation to the washing up. We see the Bart ride out to the City with Oscar’s friends and girlfriend, the partying on Bart with East Bay folks of different ethnicities—the best of the Bay—and the ride back. There, mayhem comes when a man from Oscar’s prison time recognizes him and they lay into each other among the tightly peopled car. The Bart police arrive.

The train is stopped at Fruitvale, but the story is not halted. It moves painfully forward in a final long camera shot, this one taking its time, through Oscar’s and his friends’ experiences, sitting down on the Bart platform, then pushed, struggling, asking the officers what they are being arrested for, handcuffs, the “nigger-bitch” name calling by one Bart Police officer to Oscar’ inciting Oscar’s temper. Oscar pushed face down on the pavement and held there with the officer’s knee to his throat. The gun shot. The look on Oscar’s face of rotten disbelief. The look on the cop’s face, as he tries to cuff him, senselessly.

Cut to Oscar’s girlfriend downstairs outside the Bart gates hearing the shot, screaming. When Oscar’s friends come down cuffed, led by officers, she yells “Why don’t you tell me what is going on?” A stretcher appears and is hauled up the escalator. Then it comes down with her man on it, bloodied. The ambulance takes off leaving her there. She calls Oscar’s mother, who says, “I’ll come get you,” and they go to Highland hospital, where they learn the external bleeding has been stopped, but the internal bleeding continues. Family and friends gather in the waiting room, pray in a circle. We are praying too, and even though we know the end result, know he will die, we pray because we are invested in this.

When his mother is escorted to her son’s body, she has no choice but to stand gazing through the window at him. It’s a homicide case, she is told. She cannot hug him. We remember how she left him that day in prison five years ago, their differences large. We understand her guilt, her regret. It’s not her fault. We can only be devastated. Torn apart. When he dies, we lose someone we have come to sympathize with and see from the inside. He is not a hero, but just another young Black man who has been in prison, and now, years later, has died from a gun shot wound inflicted by a White man. Whose fault is it? What can we do to stop it?