(final excerpt from The Hierarchy of Weeds)
Purslane discovered that a bar across the street from where she worked hosted a poetry slam every Tuesday night. While she wasn’t up for the slam she toyed with the idea of reading a poem in front of an audience and thought she might participate in the open mike. Purslane began work immediately on memorizing a poem she’d written for Mariposa. She spoke with a few friends at the clinic who agreed to go with her. Purslane stood in the kitchen of her condo, reciting quietly into the handle of a spatula. She practiced changing her tone and the pace of her speaking for emphasis and felt as if she were rehearsing for an audition. She did this every day for a week and on Tuesday after work she found an empty exam room and read her poem out loud again. Three of her colleagues joined her for Pho at a small café near Rebar and later, since they still had over an hour to wait for the place to open, they decided on drinks at a nearby hotel. They drank chilled white wine and laughed about work issues and when asked if she needed more practice with her reading, Purslane drained the last of her wine, smiled and began with confidence. Her poem was called “Ain’t Nothin’ Sweeter” and she recited it exactly as she had been practicing it all week and when she finished her friends smiled and clapped wildly and David, one of the clinic counselors smiled with his head cocked to one side. He asked Purslane earnestly, “why are you here?” And Purslane smiled and could have kissed him for she knew he had liked her work and thought she could be more than she was and certainly more than a clinic receptionist. If she hadn’t been slightly drunk she may have cried–so intense was the gratitude for a simple yet profound statement.
Before the doors to Rebar opened a few young people had gathered outside. They wore tight black pants and loose flowing blouses and had expertly applied eye liner. Huddled in small groups they laughed and smoked and for an instant Purslane felt out of place, but then she remembered her poem and remembered how intimately she knew it, every line embedded in her brain and she knew also that it had just the right amount of emotion and edge; that it was perfect for the crowd of people here. The place was dark and hot and there were no windows. About seven rows of folding chairs faced the stage and a separate line of chairs sat against the back wall. Purslane and her friends sat against the wall. The floor felt smooth under Purslane’s flats and she kicked off her shoes and fanned her face with her hand, letting her bare feet rest lightly on the concrete. David brought everyone a beer and they clinked their bottles together and smiled and then sat obediently facing the stage while more and more people filled the room. Music blasted from speakers but the walls were painted black and it was hard to tell where the speakers where hanging. A young brunette climbed the three wooden steps to the stage and took the microphone. She read the name of a regular poet and he took the stage and read a long, sad and angry poem about his abusive childhood. Then a younger black poet read but got nervous and forgot some of his lines. Purslane sipped at her beer. There was a cocoon like feeling of safety in the place. What little light that came from small overhanging lamps in the ceiling was absorbed by the black painted walls leaving the outlines of faces and figures soft and non- threatening. Purslane sipped at her beer and took deep relaxing breaths. Loud music started and stopped and in between songs, voices could be heard in friendly conversations. A woman sitting next to Purslane with short gray hair and a face full of smile lines asked, “Are you here to watch someone perform?” The music started up and Purslane turned to the woman and spoke directly into her ear, “I’m going to read a poem.” The woman was curious and a bit skeptical Purslane thought and she turned in her seat to get a better look, “Do you write that kind of poetry?” Purslane nodded and said, “I do. But I’ve never done this before. I’m nervous.”
Purslane could see the fear in the woman’s eyes—she didn’t think Purslane looked like the typical slam poetry writer. Maybe the woman thought Purslane’s reading would be an embarrassing disaster.
When her name was called she walked barefoot to the stage and spoke into the silver microphone. The lights were blinding and Purslane saw no faces in the crowd but she could tell they were still and paying close attention. Purslane’s voice projected clear and strong.
“A girl needs to know she has value,
to know her ideas mean something
and her heart can trust those who are supposed to protect her”
She saw no movement at all in the audience and felt herself deep inside the words of her poetry.
“Ain’t nothin’ sweet about 16
sixteen is the number of schools I attended”
Purslane paced herself perfectly, adding emphasis where it was needed.
“A girl needs a mentor; someone to nourish a seed of talent that might show
itself if given a chance,
ain’t nothin’ sweet about loneliness”
She used her hands and fists and leaned into the white glaring lights with confidence and joy.
“20 rhymes with plenty, but as a young, single mother
I had only work weary arms to offer my child
at the end of a too long day
and a heart used like a shield against the world
ain’t nothin’ sweet about poverty
When Purslane finished she placed the microphone back in the stand and wiped her wet palms on her hips. The crowd burst into spontaneous applause.
Purslane stayed and listened to a few other readings but she did not hear the words. She returned to her seat and saw the broad smiles of her colleagues. The gray haired woman said, “You don’t ever have to be nervous again.” Purslane was heady and swooned with the heat, the alcohol and a feeling of lovely completeness. She left the bar at intermission and found herself in a small crowd of people smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk. The Rebar sign with its red and white light bulbs pulsed overhead and Purslane meandered to the left and right, breathing in the warm air and a mixture of sulphor and mint. She crossed the street and stood on the corner waiting for Reggie. It was late and the summer sky held on to a dark blue ribbon of color. The tall downtown buildings poised against the horizon were embraced by the city and Purslane felt the same embrace. Purslane watched as Reggie’s Yukon approached and she hopped in the front seat and kissed him hard on his lips.
Ain’t Nothin’ Sweeter
A girl needs to know she has value– to know her ideas
mean something and her heart
Can trust those who are supposed to protect her.
Ain’t nothin’ sweet about sixteen.
Sixteen is the number of schools I attended.
A girl needs a mentor; someone to nourish a seed of talent
that might show itself
If given a chance.
Ain’t nothin’ sweet about being lonely.
20 rhymes with plenty, but as a new mom, I had
only work weary arms to offer my child
At the end of a too long day,
And a heart, used like a shield against the world.
Ain’t nothing sweet about poverty
20 is a bus number; short trip to White Center
and my chariot to the suburbs; my knight In shining armor
bus driving will you marry me man?
29 is fine and the suburbs look mighty sweet,
stars so many in the sky and frogs
To sing Away
the food bank aint got nothin’ but chicken back blues!
Royal is the color of my baby boy’s graduation gown
mama never got her high school diploma and now
what dream deferred has paid me a visit?
And do I open the door? Good job, decent pay and benefits,
nobody knows I dropped out
ain’t nothing sweet about regret.
The National External Diploma Program allows adults to earn a high school diploma using skills mastered in life and on the job. Sign me up ‘fo the sun go down!
Nine months and days of hard work later
and who do I see in the mirror?
my self… my mentor.
from High Point to Highline,
I am in school and proud, strong — intelligent
I am Sweet sixteen all over again.
Mama’s baby girl is so smart. She knows she is loved, cherished and acknowledged
her heart has always been safe
my dear sweet daughter…I will give you everything I never had
your dreams will always supersede my own
my UW grad gonna be a teacher baby girl!
see you in purple and gold
see me in cap and gown, tassled tickled ear somewhere near tomorrow…
ain’t nothin’ sweeter than that!