These lines reference my cultural experience of the Southern Black Church and Black Pentecostalism, using “wide arcs’ah hallelujah” as a touchstone to refer to the way members of the church often euphorically race around a sanctuary when they have been “touched” or “visited” by what we call the “holy spirit.” This metaphor, juxtaposed with the speculative “freedom dream” of life and joy I employ for fallen victims of anti-Black and/or anti–Black Queer violence (Freddie Gray and Ahmaud Arbery in this case), helps craft a searing truth of what it means to be Black and/or Black Queer in the U.S., attempting to imagine spaces of respite and celebration under the threat of violence and death. Metaphors such as this can reveal and/or conceal, depending on how they are used.
This truth in metaphor often gets obscured by what people assume is “fact” versus “fiction.” A narrow notion of “fact” is thought to be in direct opposition to metaphor, to story, to embellishment. The reality is that truth is made up of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Consider a set of grandparents who have been married for 50 years sharing the story of the day they first met. The “facts” might be simple: They met at a coffee shop. She dropped her cup. He paid for her to have another. They then sat down and talked for hours.
But the story these grandparents tell might employ devices like embellishment and metaphor, because those are more indicative of the emotive truth they experienced upon laying eyes on each other for the first time.
What if the truth of their story becomes about how his heart fluttered when she looked deep into his eyes like she could see his soul? What if it were about how the musicality of his voice sounded like blended flutes to her ears when he spoke to her that first time?
Through poetic language, a deep emotive truth, or emotional logic, comes through the recollection of how they felt in that moment. This metaphorized or embellished recollection, for them, might be truer, more factual, and more real than a rote, halted recitation of their physical actions.
POETRY’S QUALITY OF LIGHT
A poetic light can illuminate all things human. In Audre Lorde’s famous essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” she writes: “[Poetry] is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change.”
For people who are marginalized, poetry is, indeed, not a luxury, but a language. I (Justin) know it as a searing light through which we might brighten the path toward futures we were told we would never have. For me, it has often been a lighthouse in the darkness, shepherding my ship to port. But it has also been the torpedo fire, the rocket blaze, the missile flame I have learned to launch in protection.
For me (Christine), poetry has been a way to embody in language what otherwise remains ineffable, to envision more just and healthier ways of being and relating in the world, and to carve out spaces where sensory input, dreams, intuition, and emotions have equal play with other aspects of being human. As Rankine says, “Futurity comes if you can feel.” To me, poetry can be part of a decolonizing effort for how it helps us express what it’s like being in bodies in social spaces, in physical places, and in evolutionary time.
We often think of light as gentle, as soft. We think of the unveiling of social ills as gradual, following a linear path that says: “It will happen soon” or “we cannot stay like this forever … can we?” But consider those in Plato’s cave: aware enough of the light to become accustomed to shadows. Think of what it means to step into the sun then: to be forced into that light—that truth. It would hurt and burn, would it not?
Could you stand it? Or would you run back to the comfort of your shadows?
If poetry is light, if poetry is truth, why then would you ever think it was easy? Gentle? Soft? How could you ever believe it a luxury?
Poetry has power. But can a poem force a knee from a neck or stop a bullet? Can words heal a toxic lake or human body? Can they end empire-building? Can they save parents from fear of losing their children?
We do not know. At least, not yet.
Our poems are not shields. They are not force fields. They are not defensive. But they are weapons. Poems can be blades, bludgeons, bullets unto themselves. They also can be vessels we take to challenge our fears, to move us toward a place of vision. Moreover, as Lorde writes, “Poetry is not only dream or vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”
So we say, again: Poems are weapons.
They are weapons because in the face of darkness, hate, and denial, truth is a weapon, love is a weapon, even joy is a weapon. And in the worlds of hope, soulfulness, and witness that poetry creates, they shine searingly and brilliantly. Submit yours here.
Justin D. Wright is a sociocultural anthropologist, performance studies scholar, theater artist, and performance poet.
Christine Weeber is the copy editor, sub-editor, and poetry editor at SAPIENS. She has an M.A. in cultural anthropology and a graduate certificate in women’s studies from Colorado State University.
This article originally appeared in SAPIENS, “a digital magazine about everything human, told through the stories of anthropologists”.
Image from the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City / Flickr