1104: Black Book of Creation by Shanta Lee Gander

20240425 Slowdown

1104: Black Book of Creation by Shanta Lee Gander


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

In an interview, speaking about an ancestor, novelist Toni Morrison coughed, then reaching for a glass of water, said that’s what happens when you talk about the dead. It might have been unremarkable, except that Morrison is known for conjuring people in her literature. She was the first author to alert me to the notion of writing as an invocation of the past, a way to understand one’s present-day self and community through literature.

While a student at Temple University, I once listened to various speakers on a Kwanza program extol values of faith, unity, and collective responsibility. The poet Sonia Sanchez began her reading with a syncopated incantation of deceased black leaders into the room with us: Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Ida B. Wells. Her chantlike performance turned the gathering into a ceremony, where discussing freedom involved calling for the presence of forebears and their contributions.

Today’s poem builds on the belief that imagining is a kind of magic and time travel, that listening to the soil and all the voices within is a monumental way into both history, and our future.

Black Book of Creation
by Shanta Lee Gander

How far can you? she said, far, he said.
      How far? she said, so far, he said, that

remembering all of them becomes a chant,
       he said. I only, she said,

can go this far, she said, Great, great, gre…

Some sounds invite eavesdropping to all
      the befores. Before all the gates of 
never return, before tongues couldn’t
      be trained in what they no longer are
Before they knew about choosing
      between leaving of will or leaving of force

Before the before that is time
      we didn’t call time. Before

there was anything colored about it.
      That is—then, here, and there—are not separate

but on a table

Mother sits fashioning her children.
      Cosmic clay, stardust, and obsidian

for resilience, dreams for seeing, 
      and the things not contained by language,
and hardships sometimes cloaked as nightmares
      Story stitched into DNA like

home—distant—multiplied by 
      separation anxiety, forgotten becomes exponential force

that becomes a country expanded beyond
      its own self, beyond the shell that holds it together

Creation is the conversation
      What do you want to be? said she

Anything we choose, said we, But what,
      said she, because the world, said she,

will choose if you don’t, said she. Magic,
      the ability to manipulate circumstance,

said we. It shall be, said she
      Time lords, said we, to collapse

and expand time at will, said we,
      visibility and invisibility at will, said we

It shall be, said she. But, said she,
      as gifts are given, they can be stolen,

said she. So, with each 
      of these things, said she, it shall be

a veil of forgetting, a spirit
      that resists destruction, and these wings, said she,

Do not let anyone tell you
      they do not exist. Do not let anyone tell you they are wax!

Funny how the universe beats 
      against itself creating echoes

How far can you go back? they said, Far,
      she said, how far? they said, So far, she said,

It becomes a chant, she said,
      I know all the names of my mothers

“Black Book of Creation” by Shanta Lee Gander from GHETTO CLAUSTROPHOBIA © 2021 Shanta Lee Gander. Used by permission of Diode Editions.