I’m so happy that Gog was a finalist for this year’s Houstatonic Book Award. Congrats to the other finalists and the winner, Reginald Dwayne Betts, for Bastards of the Reagan Era.
Andrea Syzdek, in a review published by the New Orleans Review, writes a glowing review of Gog. She writes, “Gog is a lyrical, hard-hitting first book. Brandi George’s courageous balancing act between the real and the fantastical, empowerment in the midst of gender and class oppression, and rhetorical instincts turns each poem into an emotionally and technically-sound marvel. Gog embodies the beauty and terror of survival with line after line that proclaims: ‘that is how we feed / the ones we love, without a sound and when we can.'”
My debut collection, Gog (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), won the gold medal for Poetry in the 2015 Florida Book Awards. Although I’ve been rejected by at least twenty journals, jobs, fellowships, residencies, etc, just this week, it feels good to win one. Congratulations to the other winners! Cheers!
Identity is fluid. Announce your name to an empty room and feel the word take on its own life, gathering momentum as it echoes back to you. You are not the name, and yet you are only the name. You can say it until it means nothing, until it is just a collection of sounds. Keep going and it becomes a mantra, a spell. It’s like that moment in a ghazal when you write your own name. The name is a mask. Words are shells waiting to be inhabited.
Larry Levis, in “Though His Name Is Infinite My Father Is Asleep,” writes that his father “went into his name, / He went into his name, & into / The way two words keep house,/ Each syllable swept clean / Again when you say them.” There is a formidable absence filling the names of the dead. A headstone is a mask of granite and a handful of letters that “once meant a whole world.” Levis writes that his father might have announced the act of dying as: “I’m going into my name.” The name, as the first thing we’re given when we’re born, also signals our mortality. Those “two words” are what will remain after we are gone.
I write a lot about transformation, both in Gog and in my manuscript-in-progress, Anti-Faun. I’d like to know how to transcend the past, how to tap into the part of the self that lies beyond a name, beyond our memories or experiences, that part of the self that seems to wink when you call out your own name saying: I am infinite; I am the air; I am the fire burning within the letters. I tell myself that no one can hurt me, has ever hurt me, because I’m made of something indestructible; I belong to the earth and sky. As Anti-Faun evolves, it continues to confound me. The main character embodies the voices of many different creatures, including trees, water, fire, animals, and insects. I use multiple mediums—poetry, prose, paintings, musical compositions—so that I might get closer to a transcendent space.
Thanks to a workshop by Linda Hall, a local Tallahassee artist and mask-maker, I’ve created the mask of a bear. The bear is a very important figure for me. When I was a girl, I was swimming far out into Lake Superior. My sadness was so great, it was like a physical wound. The water seemed very inviting, and if I kept swimming I would be pulled down into the cold. I wanted to be a gleaming pearl among the shipwrecks and agates. Then I saw a black bear on the shore. I felt pulled in by that bear, somehow saved by it. Although I know that’s impossible, you know, that a bear would give a shit about me or if it did, that it could change me at all. Yet, I felt that it woke me up. I’ve dreamt about it ever since. A blue, blue dream. I swim through an underwater tunnel, and the bear is standing on her hind legs. Her chest is hanging open and inside is a glowing blue heart. When I touch the heart, she swipes me in the face. I wake up. I die. I wake up. I die.
When I die, I’m new, transformed. Even in my work, I practice dying so that I can live. I’m not so sad anymore. My body is ink and paper, and yet it’s the fire and mystery inside my name. The energy that fills the mask is only limited by my imagination, by what I allow to become attached to the letters.
Night like a fling of crows / disperses and is gone. –Christian Wiman
I saw a red wave in the field and it hurt like it was my own blood.
In Hymnen an Die Nacht (Hymns to the Night), Novalis writes: Night became the mighty womb of revelations—the gods drew back into it—and fell asleep, only to go out in new and more splendid forms over the changed world (Higgins translation).
To start again. To sleep.
Darkness is made of colors. There are black shadows, fluttering lights of white, purple, grey, floating translucent balloons.
There are white flowers opening for bats.
Chrysalis. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Change. Becoming. Evolution. Mutation. Transanimation. Metempsychosis.
Another obsession like a vision of holes in the ceiling of a barn that has already collapsed. If I were a god, I would name them hayloft, tent, treehouse, shed.
As a child, I often found artifacts in the creek and fields behind my grandfather’s house. When I was writing the narrative for my new manuscript, Anti-Faun, it made sense that the speaker should encounter an earthwork. The manuscript is about the loss of Michigan’s ecosystems since the late 1700s, and it focuses on my hometown of Ovid, Michigan. After doing some initial research about earthworks, I discovered that there were several of them in my own backyard. In fact, I had been seeing their remains all of my life, lying on them while looking at the clouds, chasing butterflies over them.
According to M.L. Leach’s Smithsonian Institution Annual Report titled, “Ancient Mounds in Clinton County, Michigan,” in 1885 over twenty mounds could still be discerned amid the rapidly changing landscape. My grandfather’s farm is near number 16 (bottom right). However, as Leach observes, by the end of the nineteenth century the mounds were rapidly disappearing due to farming implements as well as deliberate removal by inhabitants. Many of these bones were shipped to Glascow, Scotland for analysis. I doubt if they were ever returned.
We live in a colonial state. These mounds belonged to the people who lived here before me, people my ancestors drove from the land through violence and deception. My own great-great-grandmother, Lily Rail, signed the Saginaw Treaty of 1819, wherein most in which most of the Chippewa and Ottawa lands in mid-Michigan were ceded to the United States government. According to Charles Cleland, in Rites of Conquest: The History and Culture of Michigan’s Native Americans, the US gained 6 million acres of land, roughly one third of the Lower Peninsula from this treaty. Governor Cass prepared for the his meeting with the tribes by purchasing “39 gallons of brandy, 91 gallons of wine, 41 ½ gallons of fourth proof spirits, 10 gallons of whiskey, and 6 gallons of gin.” The tribal leaders were shocked by Cass’s proposal to buy their ancestral land. With the War of 1812 only five years behind them, they expected a proposal for peace. As Ogamawkeketo, a chief speaker said, “You do not know our wishes. Our people wonder what has brought you so far from your homes. Your young men have invited us to come and light the council fire. We are here to smoke the pipe of peace, not to sell our land.” And yet, Cass and his traders (most of whom were married to Native American women) and interpreters were willing to go to any length to secure these lands, including bribery and intoxicating tribal leaders. Most of the Chippewa and Ottawa who were forced from their homes were never compensated for the lands the government took from them, while white traders secured a tenth of the land and the majority of the cash paid for the land.
Once the government owned the area, they could sell it to entrepreneurs. The Michigan lumber industry was the most profitable enterprise in US history. Millions of acres were clear-cut, clogging the rivers as they were transported. Many species of fish, such as the grayling, went extinct. Soon the passenger pigeons would go extinct as well, a bird that was once so numerous, flocks were known to black out the sky.
What is this place where I grew up? Ovid, Michigan? A strange landscape, an alien landscape, a transformed landscape, a landscape in mourning, a ravaged landscape. I try to use art to reconnect to the these spaces, to help with my feelings of alienation, but the truth is, a part of me died with those ecosystems, a part of all of us died. There is no going back. And yet, we must go forward with the knowledge of what is lost. Where there is life, there is hope. There is hope.
I’ve recently joined Twitter in an effort to air out my latest obsession: white pine stumps. This may seem strange, but during last summer’s Michigan camping trip, they called out to me. Obsessions are reciprocal. As Nietzsche said, “If you gaze into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” As I gazed into the field of white pine stumps, the white pine stumps gazed back.
Although the forests of Hartwick Pines are lovely, I took no photographs. I was content to take in their endlessness, the pine’s serene spacing, the blue glimpsed through branches. Birds darted through the boughs and into the ferns in vast arcs. Ebony Jewelwings acted as guides as I walked across the creeks and marshes. The pines seemed to stretch forever across the flat land.
Of course, it wasn’t endless. Hartwick Pines State Park contains one of the last stands of first growth white pine in the lower peninsula: 50 acres. One afternoon I wandered from my campsite to discover a trail through what looked like a meadow. There were hundreds of stumps. The grey wood had been decaying for a hundred years or so, and nothing would grow there except grass. Unlike the forest, it was sweltering, golden and burnt. The crunchy ground gave way a little with each step. The inside of the stumps were hollow and crawling with spiders. I had come upon what I’ve come to term The Stumpfield, and I was transfixed. I took at least 50 photographs, and I never take photos. Besides a few snapshots of Lake Superior, these were the only ones I took during the trip.
The white pine stumps’ dense network of roots makes them particularly difficult to eradicate. Once these forests are clear-cut, there’s not much you can do with the land. Over the past year, I’ve returned to these photographs again and again, wondering: why am I so moved by a field of stumps? What is the source of the obsession?
For me, the Stumpfield has become a metaphor for the destruction of Michigan’s ecosystems, particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To look at them is to enter into a deep process of grieving. The stumps haunt me. They haunt me, and the only way I know how to deal with ghosts is to honor them. #whitepinestumps