Commissioned by David Burton, director of Grace Hudson Museum for From the Strength of Women: Grace Hudson Museum Annual Gala; performed during the virtual gala on September 26, 2020
Ballad of the Graffiti
Praying in my mother’s house, a place where I was a child
and am now an older woman. Living in a time of crisis
that has been unraveling since the invention and deployment
of napalm and the forces of commerce that generate wind tunnels
out of high rise buildings clustered into steel and concrete canyons,
the heavy underbellies of freeway overpasses wrapping around neighborhoods
where dolls are still left out on the sidewalk overnight
in a form of mythic forgetfulness that includes weather.
I kneel in front of the refrigerator
where she used to keep six half gallons of milk—
the neatly waxed cardboard towers printed with bright colors
and messages, stories of health but not necessarily happiness,
warnings of the potency of the vitamins and fats, and she,
who in my childhood used to stand in the doorway
while we ran out to the street when we heard the approaching bells
of the Foremost Milk Man. She who would buy a half wheel
of cheddar cheese and exchange her bottles empty for his bottles
full while we chose ice cream bars and sherbet and blinked
in the approaching darkness.
It was during her childhood after the war, she was fond of telling us,
when things were still thin, that butter used to be delivered
whiter than pig fat and the coloring would come in a separate container.
As the oldest child, it was her job to mix the two together
to get the yellow butter. The war came after the depression began.
The depression followed a period of infamous prosperity, a hilarity
of excess and dancing, a decade of beaded skirts and jaunty headbands.
I am praying in my mother’s house, but I can’t find the words yet.
That period of prosperity followed a worldwide catastrophe in which
50 million people died from an ungovernable flu. But we’re only just realizing that now.
Ordinarily this would worry me, this ability on our part to wholly forget.
However, I find myself calm. A reasonless calm. It is not yet
morning. I am still in the midst of a dream. Light has not yet begun
to penetrate the margins of the studio.
I compose poems from what alphabets I have—wooden letters
made from pear wood tree mixed with smaller letters founded from a blend of metals
and hardened in the industrial days of the early twentieth century,
thoughts of my mother’s house come to visit me, words of my considerable family,
of my philosopher and geologist friends, and their friends the artists
and Buddhist teachers and racanteurs. I make my prayers
from the knowledge sunk in the collections of museum and research libraries,
laboratories and airplane hangars. Let what has been carefully preserved
in collections of art and knowledge be cross-referenced with the graffiti
found in the wind tunnels of the cities. Now. I say, now.
Let what is written on the walls in the alleys of this city and that city,
abandoned of smoke, begin to be deciphered. Touch the chest
where the heart still expands against its solemn burden.
Touch the forehead where the conceit of the brain confounds itself.
Let the writing on the walls begin.
Theresa Whitehill, September 2020
fragments from a longer poem, “Ballad of the Graffiti of the Drawer of Spoons”