In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chicken Gravy

Today, a creative writing student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told us that in her family, as in most white families in Alabama, there used to be members of the Klan. But we don't talk about this, she added coyly. When we asked the class if they'd written about that, if they thought it important for an Alabama writer to face that recent Birmingham past, one student said that she was afraid to say the wrong thing. Another student replied that she preferred to write about the good things in Alabama. Like going to church. Like her grandmother's chicken gravy. I noticed that there were no black students in the class --no future black writers to write about the Birmingham future, or past. As I listened to the students, I couldn't help remembering the photo that I'd seen this morning, on the front page of The Birmingham Times, of a black man hanging from a tree. A supposed suicide. The family of the dead man disagrees. Either way, no one in this class is going to write the story of a dead black man hanging from a tree. Maybe none of them even know about him. In this country, one student was still saying, we prefer to move forward, and not dwell on the past.

A Small Prayer for the Unflummoxed Beaver

so unmoved by the boat’s slow approach – the boat

drifting across the flat green acre of water; a small prayer

for these acres of water which, in the low light, seem firm;

the squirrels, however, are never fooled or taken in;

a small prayer for the squirrels and their unknowable

but perfect paths; see how they run across

the twisting highway of cedars, but never crash;

a small prayer for the cedars and their dead knees

dotting the water like tombstones;

a prayer for the cedar balls that break

as you touch them, and stain your fingers yellow,

and release from their tiny bellies the smell of old

churches, of something holy; a prayer for the holy

alligators; you owe them at least that;

just last night you thought of Hana and asked them

to pray with you (the prayers of alligators are potent);

at night the grass is full of their red and earnest eyes;

a prayer for the grass that alligators divide

in the shape of a never-ending S; you lean over

to gather it because your friend says it can be cooked

with salt and oil; she says in Burma it is called

Ka-Na-Paw; a prayer for the languages we know

this landscape by; a prayer for the fragile French

spoken by the bayou’s fat fishermen, the fat fishermen

who admit to the bayou, we all dying. You understand?

Savez? A prayer for the bayou and its bayouness

and the fabulously unflummoxed beaver,

so unmoved by the boat’s slow approach.