Karisma Price, “Can’t Afford Sadness in a Time Like This”

Karisma Price’s “Can’t Afford Sadness in a Time Like This” has me imagining a giant painting. Maybe on canvas, but like the frescoes of churches, speaking the reason for the architecture. One that takes over a wall, looming large over its viewers. Composed like a mixture of Brueghel and Rockwell, featuring a cityscape with prominent, unmistakable figures. A mother feeding cotton candy to her young children. A wrecked dirt bike near a dented tree. Old school buses lining an empty street. A man, troubled and tired, looking like the next incident could be too much. Two girls sitting on a sidewalk, under a tree.

Can’t Afford Sadness in a Time Like This (from The Adroit Journal)
Karisma Price
 
Because no one is down sick or dead
tired, the black patron saint of sadness

tells me I’m not allowed to weep.
So here I am, all manners and no accent,

sitting here in the land of field peas and saltwater
fish, not weeping but watching

my cousin in ACT I of motherhood
as she pulls the pink taffy from her fingers

and stuffs it in her twins’ mouths. They stretch
their necks like stunted giraffes. We can’t afford

sadness on this wide street of abandoned
school buses where we both stole

our first sip of Crown, where a neighbor boy crashed
my cousin’s dirt bike into the tree and she cursed him

out like a drunk uncle
until her mother dragged her

into the house. We can’t afford it
as we sit in the foliage of willows. We must

enjoy a gentle sweat. The leaves
are so green and cover us both

like Baptist hands, no one hears us
sing of our no show siblings with a Motown

grief. No one can look at us and know
we are as lonely as every room

without a piano. We know too
much and not enough about

our faces and who gave them to us.
My father now lives

in the letters on my cousin’s calf
and I visit him when I can.

Her father joined him this year,
and I have not offered my skin

as a canvas for a needle’s pinch. I know
they both went into a light, my father breathing,

until not. Her father breathing then thrashing
into it like their pet pit hit

by the mail truck. Her puppies left
to house in their peeling garage.

I’ve been running from what needs me.
I refuse to make either of us cry in this poem so

I’ll just tell you that the willow weeps.

As a whole, the poem speaks a world replete with loss. I believe when grief is so powerfully present in art, a critic should attempt less to analyze and more to share. Thinking about poetry should not involve establishing a hierarchy of loss and trauma. Rather, there should be recognition of an invitation to a communal space, which in this case explores the tragedy of race in America. The heart of the emergent community entails respect for the individual experiences shared, and this begins with respect for what is presented in the poem.

There are three times in this poem I can see aspects of my own experiences. I think it’s worth noting my thoughts, attempting to craft a careful and respectful dialogue. As I write this, I’m thinking of people who are downplaying the winter storm which hit Texas. People with the nerve to say that others deserve $1000 electric bills for a system that failed. Or loudly declaring that if the other party were in charge, things would be worse. Price’s poem is a call to another realm entirely. Not one free from partisanship, but one that refuses to take human beings for granted.

*

I think of the times when I worried about friends, and I was treated as if it were inconceivable that I had friends or the right to worry. The opening of the poem does have resonance for me:

“Because no one is down sick or dead
tired, the black patron saint of sadness

tells me I’m not allowed to weep.
So here I am, all manners and no accent…”

“The black patron saint of sadness” locates a stoicism in the African-American historical experience. “I’m not allowed to weep:” generations have suffered while laboring, lost after laboring. They fought, they did not typically gain. When they did gain, it was taken away.

One does not weep out of respect for the ancestors. But this is not unambiguous. It’s absolutely the case that white supremacy takes advantage of a want to be respectful, tough, and resourceful. It doesn’t care that there are greater moral obligations. It wants to push until others are broken, then dispose of them. It affects that disposal by muting the memories of those who matter. One is not allowed to express them, and if they do, they’re not taken seriously. There must be “manners… no accent.”

I can’t speak to Price’s grief. I can say the above paragraph flows directly from what I’ve dealt with. I’m still stunned by who tried to silence me, who believed I didn’t have the right to my sadness. Only a few have really understood that I have a family which is part of America, too.

*

For some of us, there isn’t just neglect from individuals or groups, but entire systems:

“We can’t afford

sadness on this wide street of abandoned
school buses…”

Entire man-made constructions of laws, policies, myths, and attitudes that last generations. I remember, at times, being so proud of the schools that made me. Do they remember me? 

Confronting the betrayal of an education is mind-wracking on multiple levels. Education isn’t that you know, it’s how you know. It’s the way you approach the world, the way you interact, the ability to determine the true from the false and act accordingly. You can’t really break from it, even if you’ve been fed propaganda.  You have to find ways to reshape it, identify the ways in which it seemed—or actually is—credible.

It’s that last part which can be terribly galling. Let’s say you were taught lots of things which turned out to be false, but one or two things were true on a profound level. You can’t really respond to this by saying “Oh well, some mistakes were made, but there was a great truth.” Rather, a great truth was put in the service of advancing an incredible amount of awfulness. —“Well, that’s your opinion. Some people don’t get so hung up about such things.”— Yeah, but what if the other “opinion” wrecks lives?

Your obligation becomes almost philosophic, like the second sailing. Not quite. There are bad actors who spread untruth; one need not be a philosopher to challenge their behavior. If you want something more, however, the way can be most unclear. Wonder doesn’t always exist independent of anger.

*

Finally, I want to look at these lines about abandonment, prelude to a discussion of not having one’s father around that I cannot speak about:

“No one can look at us and know
we are as lonely as every room

without a piano.”

“We are… lonely.” What is a room without the possibility of music?

I do know something of loneliness. What I know is how difficult it is to speak of. It is devoid of music, of melodies built with notes and instruments, making their sounds over time. It is haunted by absence, an absence entailing a strangely intimate knowledge.  There are people who might be with you but aren’t, whether through choice or necessity. You know their ghosts. Their reality is in a realm unknown, almost permanently sealed from you.

It’s a cruel reality, and at times it affects all of us. But some of us have to live in worlds of ghosts knowing little else. That’s the reality of exclusive spaces. Not only are wealth and well-being denied, but even love and friendship are made scarce. I keep telling myself that I have to write to be visible. If I don’t do this, a thought won’t be given me at all. The hundreds of times I was treated like I was invisible in public settings grow larger in my mind, each passing year.

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