Destiny hemphilL | oracle: A cosmology
an excerpt & interview
the therapist asks, when did your depression begin?
moon as my witness. i swear i don’t know were. & i don’t know when. except
that i do. i am standing in the middle of a field. looks like the one grannie worked in as a child. my skin is perforated. blood shooting out from the holes.
people all around me
with cups prepared to catch it before the soil soaks it up. i can only move my mouth
pour back into me, pour back into me. they lift their cups to the sky.
the sun burns it into water. they put it to their lips gratefully. they are in ecstasy over the alchemy.
it begins like this. my great grandfather on my mama’s side could pass for white
if he wanted to. he didn’t want to. he mouthed off to the police.
& they beat him for being an uppity nigger. & he died.
it begins like this. my mother’s only a toddler. don’t know many words yet.
refuses to let people even her sisters hold her.
she screams put me down! put me down! you’re gonna drop me. it begins like this
i’m 21. & i tell myself to shrink so that they can grow. i tell myself that once they have grown
enough & i have shrunk enough i will have someone to hold me. it begins like this i am 22 & i have found no one to hold me because
i know that my mama was right even before she became my mama: i know you’re gonna drop me. it begins
In your artist statement, you state that you “write poems about loss; the haunting that comes after the loss; and the resistance and healing that can come from the haunting” -- can you elaborate on what it is to resist and heal from a haunting? How can we free ourselves from our ghosts? How can we free our ghosts from themselves?
I am really grateful for this question because it’s one that I find myself returning to again and again. I think people have a tendency to think of haunting (and interrelatedly, grief) as immobilizing. That it’s something that gets you stuck and that’s why you got to ignore it or repress it or get rid of it or escape from it, so you can move on and do something else. I’m also interested, though, in thinking of the ways that haunting, grief, and loss can be experienced as simultaneously mobilizing and generative. The question, then, that I find myself digging at (and the question that digs at me back) is not so much how to resist and heal from a haunting as much as how can resistance and healing come from a place of haunting?
When I was in school, I studied texts by Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, and Ana Castillo because I was drawn to the ways they engaged haunting and grief linguistically and formally. What these texts taught me was something I think I already intuited and was then conditioned out of: 1 )grief isn’t something to be banished 2) grief and haunting can be experienced both individually and collectively 3) grief and haunting aren’t random; they can often be in response to loss enacted by violence happening at both personal and political levels.
I was drawn to those texts because of my own embodied experiences of grief and haunting. In that particular moment, I was disentangling myself from an abusive relationship. I was coming to terms with my depression. Wrestling with family histories. State-sanctioned black death was saturating the national consciousness and my own in a way that seemed different than before. And while rage and indignation definitely compelled me into the streets--it was also a profound sense of compounded grief and the recognition that fighting off my grief and what haunted me was not serving me. I had to recognize that the grief and what haunted me could charge my imagination so that I could begin to envision a world that did not systematically enact the violences that result in loss. I recognized that I could use the grief and haunting to guide my self-study as well.
I’ve come to think of haunting and grief, then, as offering a space to compel personal and political transformation. Haunting says this happened and it wasn’t right and it should not be normalized. Even as systems of oppression insist that something be forgotten, repressed, subjugated, moved on from “because it wasn’t that bad,” grief and haunting insist that something will be remembered. In “A Glossary on Haunting,” Eve Tuck and C. Ree put it like this: “Haunting [...] is the relentless remembering and reminding that will not be appeased by settler society’s assurances of innocence and reconciliation.” They go on to talk about how both individuals and societies can be haunted and how the United States is haunted by genocide, chattel slavery, rape, and the other violences enacted by its settler colonial project.
So what I am interested in more than getting free from my ghosts is how do I get free with my ghosts? Because the haunting is trying to teach us something. It’s trying to tell me something. It’s trying to get me to acknowledge the depth of harm and/or horror that has taken place. It’s telling me that whether I am a survivor of the harm and/or horror or complicit in it, I’m going to have to reckon with it even as those reckonings look different. It’s trying to get me to ask myself how can I be accountable to myself and to my communities. It’s trying to get me to a place where I can imagine and create a world beyond this current one. Trying to get me relate to myself and those ghosts beyond a place of shame, guilt, arrogance, or denial because that’s the place where the contraction and immobility comes in. And I believe that’s the place that locks our ghosts as well.
You write of magic and witchcraft extensively in Oracle: a Cosmology; can you tell us about the ways spiritual practices influence your daily life?
My spiritual practices influence my daily life in seemingly mundane but significant ways. Most often, I find that taking care of my spirit allows me to be more attentive to the way I’m relating to myself as well as the situations and people around me: How is this situation challenging me? What parts of myself am I doubting? What wall did I put up? What boundaries made out of self-preservation have since eroded? What do I appreciate about the way they show love? Sometimes, my spiritual practices lend towards a more defining structuring of my day. I may decide for a while that every morning I will journal and that every night I will do a particular ritual, but I try to allow fluidity in that structuring, too. Someone, Ms. Brooks, told me once that what you need to keep you balanced may change day to day because what is going on around you might change day to day.
Sometimes writing family history is like playing a long, convoluted game of telephone -- how do you find surety in family narrative? What do you do when events or people become blurred?
Hmmm. Trusting the storytellers and the record keepers definitely helps me feel grounded in a family narrative, I think. My mother and father have been the primary transmitters of the family histories, and I feel like I can trust them. I trust them because they are attentive listeners. They’re observant. They question things. They’re willing to be vulnerable in their sharing. They also grew up together, so when one’s memory is faltering as a human memory is liable to do, they can confirm things for each other.
I think another component of feeling grounded in family narrative takes trusting oral histories as legitimate, valid sources of knowledge. Which not everyone is willing to do. Colonization has actually taught us very violently not to do that, right? Written records are given more power and are imagined as more trustworthy than oral tradition. (Then then add to the mix, I come from folks with rich oral traditions that also have a history of being systematically denied access to writing--clearly colonizers don’t want me to know some things about myself). So understanding oral tradition as a legitimate and embodied source of knowledge; knowing that written traditions, even as they are obviously useful, are not inherently more accurate than oral traditions; understanding that ultimately all stories and their transmission, written or oral, are questions surrounding power (i.e. who has it? What kind)--this all helps me ground my engagement with family narratives.
Now, of course, that means I can still be critical in thinking through what I am hearing. And I have to be, right? Just as one has to be with written records. There’s some people that I may not trust. Even with people I do trust, I still have to be aware of their biases, especially around class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion and other macro systems that get replicated at an interpersonal level. So I can ask what appeal is being made here--is it to some concept of purity, strength, redemption, evil? Whom is this story trying to protect? Is the storytelling protecting that person because they are vulnerable, or is it defending this person because they’re the one with more power? That “mmm. Well, we know why such-and-such did such-and-such”--do we actually know? That sounds like evasion. What do I not know about this story? What can I not know from this story?
So it’s not so much the blurred events or blurred people that trip me up. If I were to only depend solely on what was told to me, the construction of a story makes the people and events recalled appear to be clear in the context of the story being told. It’s the story’s gaps and figuring out how the people and events relates to me beyond the story narrated that becomes the most challenging. That’s also what makes it the most generative because poetry allows me to speculate, synthesize, interrogate, and invent possible connections. Even if these processes do not get me any closer to what factually happened, they can offer insightful questions and those insightful questions carry truths that interest me. Searching for these questions rather than fixed answers means that surety isn’t necessarily what is at stake for me in these family narratives. Nothing is static anyway. Even if we know for certain this specific incident happened, whether or not it gets emphasized or investigated further depends on the moment of the engagement. Rather, what’s at stake is the space that is opened up by family narratives to explore, reconsider, navigate questions I may have.
How did you find poetry? Or how did it find you?
I didn’t really begin talking until I was around 3; and, when I did begin to talk, people did not understand my speech. It was incredibly frustrating. I would have to repeat myself several times or people would interrupt me in an attempt to more quickly decipher what I was saying. I would shut down a lot. Around that time, though, I also was learning how to read and write from my mother. Writing became easier because I could just show someone what I wanted to communicate rather than telling them and risking being misunderstood. And beyond the functionality of writing, I enjoyed it. When we made “Mother’s Day” cards in kindergarten, we could either copy down a pre-written poem or write our own. I came up with my own (“love is love/ play is play/ but most of all/ Happy Mother’s Day”). I felt really good about that little poem, and other folks seemed to feel good about it, too. So I kept writing poems.
Destiny Hemphill is a healer and poet based in Durham, NC. She is a 2016 Amiri Baraka Poetry Scholarship recipient from Naropa University's Summer Writing Program. Her work has been featured in Narrative Northeast, Scalawag, and Button Poetry. She offers her poems as a space for communal rites of healing and grieving in the fight for black liberation.
You can preorder Destiny's chapbook, Oracle: A Cosmology at our store here.