June 8–14, 2020
Charles Lynch is a poet, essayist and memoirist. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland, attended Kenyon College and the City College of New York, and completed a doctoral dissertation at New York University on the lives and poetry of Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks. He has taught writing and literature at Rutgers (Newark), Brooklyn College and Empire State College and retired from the English department at New Jersey City University. He received a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Fellowship for Cave Canem sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have been published in anthologies and journals such as Chelsea, Drunken Boat, Obsidian, Evening Street Review, Black American Literature Forum, Crab Orchard Review, MEMOIR (and), pluck! and the Saint Ann’s Review.
Author photo by Gayle M. Lynch
Vigil for Wholeness
Slave Coast’s swamp and lagoon,
Rappahannock’s teeming marshes,
Irish Sea’s chill mist
whose gift of blood and flesh
Conjurer of souls, quicken this world with long-lost kin.
Draw from the leather pouch
wampum strip crocodile tooth peat moss tuft
I am asking to be born
far cry from fugitive accomplice I hid
when forbidden entrance, seat, or sip:
leching master’s blanched remain
little mule packing dead seed.
Suddenly, whoops ululations yips chants.
Flambeaux sear the welcoming dark.
Ancestors, intent upon their return,
have come down to let me in.
Natives whose earths I never cleaved
to bury, sow, mine, or build—
Niger River ’s thresher of pearl millet,
weaver of sweetgrass and wattle,
Cork’s grizzled potato farmer—
usher me to the serenade.
I clap and stomp among elders
who in midnight’s notch, encircle me.
Musky chests and fragrant bodices mingle.
Beaded moccasins stutter step heel-to-toe
as a stick thumps the bodhran.
Tin whistle chirps. Baling wire
straddling weathered planks
plucks blue, quavery notes on the wind.
—Originally published in Obsidian, Winter 2006.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I had been reared knowing I had African, Irish and Native American ancestors (Rappahannock from Virginia). Before the “Black Is Beautiful” late 1960s I was conflicted about being light-skinned, even reluctantly accepted that “mulatto” might be a convenient self-designation (until I learned it meant “little mule”). “Vigil for Wholeness” laments that confusion and honors deliverance into pride. HOWEVER, after Ancestry.com registered only one percent Indian blood—though fifty-two percent English, Irish, Scots, Welsh and thirty-five percent Cameroonian, Congolese, Ivorian, Ghanaian, Nigerian—the poem is more conjectural and like wish fulfillment, vibed by imagining ancestral mysteries and rituals that invite the deceased. Based upon my experience and credible testimonies, I trust that revenants exist. A firm conviction: No one decides whom they can be born to; ideally, all humans should feel ancestrally “whole.”
What are you working on right now?
A premise, synopsis and query letter for my semi-autobiographical Hawker of Rough-Edged Silhouettes, which dramatizes interactions between African American social classes in Baltimore and Cape May, New Jersey, by focusing on my family. Events occur essentially from May through October 1959, when I was fifteen. Also, shuffling and revising poems to submit for a collection including different voicings, from the academic and formal to Black rural dialect.
What’s a good day for you?
During this viral pandemic, an exchange when another tells me why she or he is happy, resolved, comfortable. A day of some laughter when the overload of bad “news” does not weigh heavily—and I can confidently create and be kind.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Convenience and cheaper space. I had few acquaintances there and rarely entered the borough. Then in 1968 I taught English in downtown Brooklyn, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights to welfare recipients preparing for GED exams. When I married Gayle in 1969 we moved from our Manhattan apartments to one at the corner of Dean and Bond in Boerum Hill.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Moved to Manhattan in September 1964 after Kenyon College in Ohio and rooming-housed on West 120th and Amsterdam, then an apartment on 102nd and Amsterdam, then a sixth floor walk-up on East 25th near Third for thirty-eight dollars a month! Never adjusted to Manhattan’s hustle, honks, and windowed canyons. I’ve lived on Eastern Parkway between Classon and Franklin since 1972. Always enjoyed the ethnic diversity, the openness, the vista. Inner city is my domain—changing passersby give me a sense that the larger world comes to visit. I regret that people of color have been displaced. At one time the community was like a mini-African diaspora. Money and realtors have made it safer, more upscale, redolent with coffee and quiche, which I am allergic to.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Membership in the Park Slope Food Coop since 2003 has been extremely fulfilling. For almost three hours every fourth week I received products and stocked bins and shelves along with very diverse, intelligent coworkers. They shared so much about lifestyles, their expertise, food and environmental issues. We affirmed how laboring ennobles us. WARNING: Major media tends to deride the coop, one strategy against its model, which is a threat to capitalist greed and worker exploitation.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
In New York and New Jersey I have friends who are novelists, journalists, painters, activists, scholars, musicians and poets. I’ve benefited from workshops but have no real “community,” just inspiring and supportive creative folks. I support Poets House and am a graduate of Cave Canem workshops, empowering opportunities for poets to share work and critique. Many participants have garnered major prizes, a glorious tribute to how that community transforms world literature.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
My master’s thesis at CCNY was on Whitman, the programmatic and confessional poet. Forever in awe of his innovative genius. Tracie Morris is always worth hearing and watching. As writers and activists, Louis Reyes Rivera and Daniela Gioseffi. Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s poems intrigue—like a kaleidoscope of tactile photos and tonal shifts.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
No active mentors, but knowing Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks charged my consciousness and writing: quest for precise diction; African American life and culture deserve a lifetime of mining; enjoy seeking what is quirky, funny; show love and compassion for those less schooled and fortunate. Joel Agee, author and translator, is an invaluable companion who has shared much about the integrity and vagaries of spirit, how to conjure and wrangle words, and the power of imagination. I envy the ability to fashion cameos: Emily Dickinson, Kevin Young, Lucille Clifton. Poets I have gleaned from are Sterling Brown, Alan Dugan, May Swenson, Sharon Olds (what similes and body language!) and Evie Shockley.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Tyehimba Jess in OLIO turns startling metaphors and re-birthed historical facts too long forgotten. Joel Agee’s In the House of My Fear powerfully evokes aspects of the 1960s in the US and Europe. Enjoyed Dorianne Laux, Only As the Day Is Long; Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude; Wisława Szymborska, View with a Grain of Sand. Harry Belafonte’s autobiographical My Song is an informative exploration of the entertainment industry and progressive politics, and a candid self-examination.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
How about the Unfinished? Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude; Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things; Cervantes’s Don Quixote; Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities—classics highly recommended that I feel I SHOULD relish, but …
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I try to read only one book cover to cover at a time. If I need to read to teach a text or to stoke writing, then I take notes, might skip about in texts and/or use the cell phone and computer for info and images.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
No big ambitions to try the untried. However, I have scrambled to complete a poem or two emblematic of every foreign place I visited. Perhaps I needed to SETTLE in Paris, Montreal, Vancouver, Kenya, Singapore, Malaysia, Israel, Amsterdam, Mexico, England. Many notes, false starts, fragments, blandings. Only four did not abandon me: Haiti, Jamaica, Grenada, Cuba. Maybe this guy’s mainly a tropicalist?
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Though I am very aural and easily distracted by sounds, I even try to read on the subway. With pen and paper I tuck into my pocket I’ll jot ideas, malapropisms, overheard comments, images and facts anywhere. To concentrate I need quietude, sitting an hour or more to do serious writing.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Brisk walking in or along Prospect Park. The Botanic Garden in snow, influenced by Harry Callahan’s photos of spare branches, twigs, thistles, weeds. The food at Blue Ribbon on 5th Ave. Junyuh’s Resraunt on Flatbush late Sunnay breakfast mongst aftuh chuch diners in finery en haberdash. Brooklyn Museum scrutinizing African sculpture and contemporary art.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate lies, scams, brags, firings, FOX-knocks,
And what I splay as hidden hand gone viral
force feeds MAGA gaggles, dumps fumps humps stumps you,
For every shtick chaotic and necrotic that cathects me as good
poxes all three Houses and (blankety-blanks) you.
Trees, wide streets, lawns, yards, spacious rooms/ Joey Gallo’s gang going to the mattresses and holed up with a lion on President Street/ First parkway in the world (Olmsted and Vaux, 1870–1874)/ World Champion Dodgers/ Promising NETS / Little Anthony and the Imperials/ Big Daddy Kane/ unhip hipsters and crack dealers hyped/ West Indian Day parade lovelies gyrating on floats to pan, calypso, soca, reggae (before sound system bedlam and talentless machos spieled tedious marching orders)/ currant rolls, coconut bread, chicken and shrimp roti/ Bridges: Williamsburg, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Verrazzano/ Gayle’s great-uncle Foster Brown, maître d’ at Gage & Tollner/ Cranes and containerization on the waterfront/ Chabad Lubavitch in black-and-white shaking and cradling lulavs during Sukkot/ Girls’ drumming band on the front steps of St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf/ Carillons and church bells keeping time/ If it had remained an independent city after 1898, Brooklyn would be the fourth most populous in the US (estimated 2.6 million in 2020).