Off the Garden Path

-On the occasion of Community Crafting, November 9, 2017. Visit eachbodyeastflatbush.tumblr.com for more info.

A year ago, I wrote an essay for the inaugural occasion of what my friend Carlos named “Discomfort Suites,” seasonal salons where artists and writers could get together to eat, drink, and share. I read the essay, “The Garden Path (to Place),” to a warm room of people whose bellies were full with mac n’ cheese and roasted beets and greens and laughter. A November later I find myself revising the essay back in my hometown, preparing to practice some of these actions with a new group of people in East Flatbush. There won’t be mac n’ cheese, unfortunately, but we’ll have cookies and chips. Instead of a home, it will be inside of a library. I still find myself pleading in the same way, begging people to connect in a world that is betting on our mutual disconnection. I still fail a lot. But sometimes it works. Sometimes it feels like it’s working.

In Summer 2016, I went to three weddings of some of my dearest friends. At the one that September, for my friends Paula and Dan, Paula wore a beautiful floral crown and invited people to make their own crowns and boutonnieres at the reception in a yoga studio we had converted for the afternoon in Pilsen, Chicago.

They asked me to deliver the invocation, which I did while wearing a floral crown I had quickly fashioned between gulps of celebratory Modelo. Paula is a museum educator who I became friends when we both worked at the same NYC museum. Dan is a poet who I became friends with because he fell in love with my friend Paula, which isn’t the worst reason to first find yourself in relation to someone. In thinking about their union, I went to the words of Alain Badiou, who in Rhapsody for the Theatre offers love as: 

…that scene in which a truth proceeds…it requires work, an ongoing process and a series of operations for allowing difference and disjunction to appear in the form of a couple.

That felt so right, particularly for Paula and Dan, who share an unbridled commitment to discovery and rediscovery and reflection on those practices in a refusal to forget.

That June, I had officiated the ceremony of my friends Corinne and Felix and leaned into Paul’s tried and tested first letter to the Corinthians. We know love is patient and that it is kind, but how many of us get to the part where:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And so I stood on the beach with my back to the sea under a canopy of silk flowers, one in my hair for good measure, and shared thoughts on love as a practice of recognition built on the responsibility of holding up a mirror until you are ready to break through it, which Corinne and Felix happen to be expert at.

Over a year ago, I bought a painting from one of my students and it features a man and a woman in a Polaroid torn down the middle, their heads replaced by blooming tropical flowers. When I asked her about it, before she hustled me out of forty dollars, she told me it was about a relationship—a friendship or a romance or a family—that was falling apart.

My father was a florist. He arranged flowers for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Flowers and their accompanying objects have been all over my life, populating the spaces I inhabit for as long as I can remember: shears, floral foam and tape, vases, pedestals, ribbons, wire, little useless vials of water. Whenever I smell roses or lilies I close my eyes and picture myself at seven.

In the original version of this essay, I had created a list as a metaphor to walk people through a garden of truths: some old, some new, some constant. Looking at the list a year later, most of it remains the same, with perhaps a few glaring revisions (guess which) and a couple of additions. Let’s walk:

  • Someone once told me poetry is the encounter.
  • My family is from a city in the southwest countryside of Haiti called Jérémie. It is known as the city of poets.
  • My family is from the city of poets.
  • I am from the place of encounter.
  • My family moved to Brooklyn during the 70s and 80s.
  • Everyone keeps moving to New York: to meet new people and dreams, to encounter their lives.
  • I was born in the city where people (are still trying to) meet.
  • L’histoire, as in the stories, rumors, and songs that circulate in my family through time, tells me that I am a site (a location).
  • History, as I’ve learned in many years of schooling, tells me I am a sight (a thing to behold).
  • At the risk of being a thing, quite literally an object to hold, I’ve spent a lot of time turning myself into a location.
  • I’ve become a site to save myself from becoming a sight. I’ve become a site in spite of being a sight. I am from the site of sights.
  • I’m a big, bad, black poem.
  • I became a poem in a world that keeps trying to convince me that I am a thing, or more specifically, a no-thing.
  • I make you encounter. That is my work.
  • My poems work. They do. I know this because I’m tired. I know this because I work.
  • I am exhausted, which is sometimes surprising to me because I very rarely get to be a person, a body that could get tired.
  • Every evening my mom asks me, “But don’t you ever get tired?” My answer is always and honestly “no” because I am a place.
  • A place doesn’t have a body.
  • In this campaign to not stop being a person before I should, I have almost successfully (regrettably) erased from my body any sign that would allow someone to practice their sight on me.
  • I want to trust people’s eyes, but there’s so much bad, bad vision.
  • An ocean is a mesmerizing thing to look at, but you can’t hold it.

In Haiti, History, and the Gods, Colin Dayan describes three kinds of unions between men and women in contemporary Haiti: placing (plasaj), marriage (mariaj), and, finally, concubinage with or without cohabitation (known as byen avèk, or “keeping company”). While the gender binary frames these relationships in a kind of heteronormativity, there is a historical attachment to land and sex (referring to both anatomy and intercourse) that cannot be denied, a legacy from the days of chattel slavery where slaves were not people; they were sights, as in beasts awfully working in the cane, their sun blistered bodies seeming to never quit. After the revolution, when a country full of “sights” successfully gained their freedom, they became people able to see the sites they had spent so long working on and for the first time could behold that land as theirs in ways that would be affirmed by the new laws of civility. The Haitian Revolution, as violent, cataclysmic, and catastrophic as it was, was also apocalyptic in how it reset all things, from labor to love. In this new world, people all over the country developed new modes of relation rooted in the land; so that the labor of the sexes and the activity of sex were now intertwined in the practice of love.

Marriage being the union of two people in the eyes of the church and state and concubinage being people sexually involved without much other commitment, plasaj is so fascinating to me because it’s doing something different. Dayan tells us that, “To place oneself means to establish both a household and agricultural cultivation.” And so the practice of plasaj depends on an exchange between bodies at rest in the home and bodies that labor on the land. An example comes from an interview with Erosmène Delva:

Listen carefully to what I’m going to tell you, sweetheart. You’re keeping company with a guy, the two of you are together: I’m used to feeling his thing, he feels mine, too. He has land. He gives me a piece. That’s gift-hold, right. It’s a gift because we’re together [and] getting along well. What comes from the garden is mine; I don’t need to give him anything. And yet, I’ve already given him [something] and I’ll keep on giving [something] to him. If we’ve been getting along well for a long time when he dies, he might leave [i.e., bequeath] the gift-hold plot to me, especially if I have a child for him. 

This setup is rooted in an amicability that is seeded in goodness: good friendships, good neighborhoods, good kinship. For plasaj to work there must be respect, recognition, and I’d say, a kind of love. It’s a love that defines itself by horizontality, pragmatism, routine and non-exception; a love so daily and so mundane it becomes extraordinary. This kind of love is the polar opposite of excess and is most associated with life in the countryside where people still work the land as their main source of income (and in that way their main source of love). In areas of higher socio-economic status, mostly in cities in the north, marriage is the ticket: no longer tied to the land, you can afford to pay for your love, invest in it, perhaps, in yet another new way that, once again, calls for new terms of agreement. (Or that would be the hope; though the historical evidence points to an extradition of that labor of love.)

Two years ago, I spent my time building a house. I succeeded in some ways. I failed in others. That’s the work of art. Last year, I was in the garden. I was trying to, very simply, get my hands in the dirt, which I think I did. These days…oh, these days. These days I honestly just want to crawl back into bed. I’m filled with a familiar sadness knowing that I arranged the flowers as best I could, but they died and of course that was always going to happen. I’m nervous to sow seeds because I know the ground is not fertile, yet every bone in my body is telling me to hope.

As with any social practice, plasaj is marked by very particular rituals: grand courtships and events that have to do with letters of proposal and, of course, flowers. Whether that refers to great floral arrangements or some kind of process, I’m not exactly sure, but the terminology “code of flowers” or “language of flowers” is used.

In this national and global moment of rupture; in the year after my mother’s country—the poet’s city—was rocked by Hurricane Matthew; in the weeks and months after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria destroyed everything in their paths; in the growing ambiguity of my own understanding of practices of intimate relation; in an attempt to surrender and step up; in some strange gesture of hope, it seems like an opportune time to reassess and reestablish some terms of agreement.

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