Poetry: Arisa White



A combination of all She greatmothers. Part Rose, part Bernadine, part slaves and Truth, tongues collected and rescued—strange fruits. From waterbeds and ship bellies, street corners and stonewalls, pews and pepperpots, it’s She standard talk—cadences full of wine and holler, She matrilineal roots of water and repair, grit and pre-severance.

Born under the sign of the fish, 28 years of livin, She moved from the East to West Coast and resisted the urges of where She placenta’s buried—Brooklyn! Journeyin to find She self along the way, to get deep in She. From the tough teacher of Virgin Saturn, She learnin to love She.

She’s Fairy Godbrotha, pronoun fluid, swift with the dozens, forever She dandy and moonwalkin lion.

Gram Seagull
She’s maternal Gramma, Zola Mae, who passed away the first year She lived on the West Coast with Lover. She regrets never sayin goodbye to Gram, whose spirit comes back to She as a seagull.

Where desire meets grief, Lover is the ghost She haunts herself with. The situation: She and Lover chose a monogamous solution to give more attention to We—the entity She and Lover were tryin to become. She crept off in the mornin light, after being in Love Revolution’s night, and crawled on up in Lover’s bed and Lover put an end to We.

Bitches Brew
For the songs in She head, there is Bitches Brew, a polyphonous, indie band of polyamorous hotties, led by singer Petra Fried, with Moxie Jollof on bass guitar, and Azalea Black plays anything in her hands.

Mirror, Mirror
She second-person poems that take a hard look at She self.


Your body is arrested by its aliveness,
you have a yes for just this moment.

A dark and mythical place, your face there
for drinking—sweet and plum, your magic tongue.

You are not a man of god, more complete
than you’ve ever been. You’re one dense circumstance.

In a room with yourself, temperature of your feeling,
neither hot or cold and you hum with living.

Bookcase full of spines and pages turn, first
by touch of your heart, second by lick of your finger.

You are the ’fro that doesn’t know gravity.
Time to sit and plait another story.


“I’m halfway seen,” She says.

“Abandoned by one of my makers,
I’m a prototype for here and not here.”
She’s sayin.

“What does this face cost?” She said.
She said, “I will not spill my alpha
bets on the table, so you can have me
for sure.” She’s resisting; She said less.

“I keep missing the train, the walls built
beautifully by heart.” She rubs She chest
to let She beast breathe. “What does a fish
do with all this air?”

“This is not my element. I’m large
and slippery and this ground hits hard
when you fall.” She remembers the harmattan,
cigarette lit at noon, heat pullin all the sea
out of She.

“On hands and knees, the ember brought
a new light into view.” She braids her hair to
the pulse of a remorseful code: She Oh She. She
Oh She. She Oh She. “Need to part and grease.”

“I am a girl.” She says. She said. She’s sayin.
Interlocution, She conducts. Interlopin, She
two-centuries. She fumbles, “Girl.” She rasps
and buries, “Girl.” She mood and thought and
demented, stroked and in reaction.

She said and the sayin is death, is dead, is start
and She speak. Gravel, silt and sand, She is
a shoreline She father spelled on her certificate.
She responds to ships and pillage.


She’s applyin for the dole.
In poverty’s stew, She thought
bachelor’s, master’s would get She
the ladle—She degrees just kiddin.

Stares at the fat hand wrapped around his ho—
her height and brown like Jimmie Walker
painted her. Fat Hand’s contently quenched—
he has drank the water from her tall glass.

A micro way for understanding
how we go ‘round. Tragic, we are,
like bees. Oily veins of our understreets
fracked and cracked, pipes are part misery.

She is not humbled by the boat she’s in.
Lost in the syllables of many fleeing shes.
Wayward and ambitious, She is far
from home, always has been.

Cells have their own countries,
crooked rooms, crooked houses,
crook in She neck, crooks in sharkskins.

Hunted from us is that sovereign
thought to hang above the mantle,
spread before the wood-burnin stove.

Fruit’s sweet temptation has us swallowin
too many seeds—the responsibilities of livin
out side of She. Eventually we awake—a forest.

She imagines life beyond the leaves,
and recollects Robin. Invited her into She
dorm when there was no where else for her to go.
Robin stayed a year—couldn’t graduate as a “Sarah.”

It was Robin who said, “Being you is all
you can do” when She felt She nets had no hold—

                        “I’m not from here.
                        Don’t know much
                        about this place,
                        can feel its pace
                        and its pace is slow.
                        Everyone’s afraid
                        of each other. No one
                        questions one’s make.
                        Always the chicken,
                        seldom the egg.”

Red clay brings from She
the southern part of She knowin.
Can you ever get rid of your back roads?
She finds a way to arrive—it’s a matter of She state.


She gives her fingerprints to scan, sees the close portrait
of She eyes before She’s stamped for food: Saturn’s brass ring;
Zola Mae stitches a parachute.


Twice around the Lake and still no Alice Street, and if She passes
the guy sellin oranges, She will take him up on his “Dulce!”

After 60 paces, the panic in She grows, after three people pointed the way—She can’t find it.

“Yeah, sweetie, cross over Oak,” the gentleman in a fedora directed.

“Stay on 14th and you will reach,” said the soft butch, with a gold-tooth incisor. Rested her hand on She shoulder, slipped She her number, and then swaggered off, smooth.

And a young lady, surely skippin school, applied a bubblegum lip gloss before she replied, “It’s downtown, an easy way—stay straight,” and the young lady’s braids, swept into a bun, slick and black in the sun, dapped She goodbye.

Nearly a year of livin here, She still can’t figure these streets. Time is such that She is past-late for the mandatory job trainin, which started at 12:thirty. It’s a quarter to one and the ground opens beneath She.

Concrete laps at She toes. Its throat, mucus and sewage of a decayin city, lit with pus and beetle butts. From the dank and dark of this soupy mouth, a voice She hears—is it She or the ground sayin: “What kind of stupid are you? You can’t find Alice and now with no job, who’s going to pay bills?”

The sidewalk captures She breath. The way we breathe—in a circle—She found a rhombus burst in She chest.

Calms She eyes on the pyramids of oranges—a dozen for $5—the seller’s brown shoulders, his cowboy hat, a Raider’s fan. She watches joggers’ kneecaps, the sequined shimmy that is the Lake, the junk in the trunks—all these curves bring She right where She needs to be.

“How much for one?” She rescues She words from the hard silence that made them rocks.

He holds up his hand, spreads his fingers like a star to emphasize five. “Fifty cent.”

She gives him two case quarters. His gracias and She’s gracious; he peels the orange so the rind snake-coils, and She wears it like a set of bangles.

It’s true, naranja gives the dopest sweet to soothe the dread of not findin the mandatory trainin—She’s given up, and rubs She pennies like they will bring cha-ching.


She walks westward toward Petra Fried’s vocals,
the husky alto that fills She heart with earth.
She follows their chorus for “Truth & Hamer,”
to their nuclear curls and untamed kitchens.
Platforms add negligible height to these already
Amazonians, lithe and long as She.

First Friday night in Oakland, few days after Lover
and She arrived in the new city, after the thousand
of miles that drove We to this West, they went
to the White Horse and Bitches Brew featured
for the evenin and Manhattans were half priced
durin their set. Although, She now eatin an orange,
She mouth remembers maraschino cherries (and Moxie
Jollof’s chin had similar geometry as the space between
She thighs).

She watches the trio with hills over their heads.
The crowd sprawled on grass, propped on benches,
some look like 9-to-5ers, students, everyone casually
dressed like this Tuesday is a weekend afternoon.
She finds an empty spot on the stone seating,
and the Bitches beatbox the sun that lives red in She
skin. The orange peel brings a bee to She wrist.

She no-worries, no care for a sting—let it find its sweet
in its last years before it goes extinct. In that brief moment
when She doesn’t hold She life like an object, consumed
by the doom of She status, She’s in a consciousness
that’s feminine. She puts She head back, opens She
throat to some unsettled note sittin in the back-back there.
How to read it? How to sing it? Tone deaf with the Bitches,
She croons grief that Lover unleashed in She stairwell.

Not that She givin much attention to what’s happenin
beside She: a seagull lands near She right hand,
“Girrl, you better screech!”

She recognizes the voice of She Gramma,
still in the memory of She ears. She knows
all too well, Gramma for truth dead.

“You took off your scaffold
flown far from the nest and Lover
left you to the curb and you’re
wondering who you are now—
a psychological problem that befalls
us all. Don’t wonder away from yourself.”
Gram Seagull waits for granddaughter
to meet her with She eyes.


You ain’t got to go
where you don’t
wanna go.

You ain’t got to
do what ain’t
well for you.

You ain’t got to cry,
the river.
You ain’t got to put
the sun to rest.

Ain’t I Truth?—Yes
Ain’t I Hamer?—Yes
Ain’t I truth, I got a hammer.
I’m human and sicker than ever—
backed by the strength of my ancesistas.

Free, free free, free
Free, free free, free

You got Truth and Hamer—
dismantle this shit together!
Don’t matter your creed, your sex,
your seed—your advanced degrees.
Let’s no longer make an A-S-S
out of you and me!

Ain’t I Truth?—Yes
Ain’t I Hamer?—Yes
Ain’t I truth, I got a hammer.
I’m human and sicker than ever—
backed by the strength of my ancesistas.

Free, free free, free
Free, free free, free

Life is a journey (Take it!),
split this world
with your truth, (Word!)
let your truth
be your hammer, (Bam Bam!)
and the wound
lets in the light. (Holla!)

You got home in your heart,
you don’t get what you can’t carry—
You ain’t got to carry
your load alone.
Change’s gonna find you,
love is where you stand your ground.

Ain’t I Truth?—Yes
Ain’t I Hamer?—Yes
Ain’t I truth, I got a hammer.
I’m human and sicker than ever—
backed by the strength of my ancesistas.

Free, free free, free
Free, free free, free


She breathes in deep, looks right. Looks left, to check reality—
a bird talkin to She, when moments before the ground
showed its privacies.

They say a bird’s shit is money comin for ya—
but a birdspeak be?

Gram Seagull sings, “Ain’t I Truth?”

“You for real?” She says to Gram Seagull,
with a sideways glance.

“I was there before you came into this world.”
Gram Seagull looks at She beakwise.

“What marks my crown?” She tests
Seagull’s know-how, turn She body to face Gram.

“Imprint of my broken pinky—right hand, swear.”
Raises her right wing, and typical of a seagull’s song,
Gram goes “Mine, mine, mine.”

She thinks She mind not right. “You telling me, you’re my
mother’s mother dead?”

“Listen, you ain’t alone.” Gram Seagull takes off.
Her wings flap too close to people’s heads; they duck and swat
at Gram, and She feels partly protective and cloudy, mostly.

Perches on the shoulder of a muscular arm, a man dancin
the Naenae—Barnard. Sleeveless checkered flannel, red
and black, and halfway buttoned, Barnard diva-twirls
a train of houndstooth tweed.

Gram talks-talks into his ear, Barnard turns his head, looks
to She, and bows and curtsies. She too seen, gathers She
things to run in the other direction. Barnard casts a Lady
Di wave, aims his finger at She, and mouths “Come.”


Gram Seagull and Barnard stand on the bridge,
She slow-approaches.

Redbone glow gone meek as She weaves
through the people. When She’s in earshot,
Gram Seagull teases, “We’re not gonna eat you.”

“This is Barnard,
dark and dandy,
your Fairy,
your Godbrotha—
forever to be your gold road.”

Barnard takes She by the hand,
“She, She, She,” and with leisure,
spins She around for a 360-read.

“He’ll help you sift through
the contents of your opened heart.”
Gramma gives She a look that says, “Trust.”

Locked in a stare of admiration, Barnard
quips, “Seagull speaks about you like you’re a girl—
but you’s a woman now!”

“She: A Sister Outsider’s Heroine’s Journey” (working title) is intertextual and set in an 155-acre urban greenspace, and interrogates the social ecologies that impact the main character’s ability to mine and integrate the terrains of her own femininity. As a result of her outlier status, she questions what it means to be a sister outsider and seeks healing refuge in the outdoors.

Confronted with the socioeconomic crisis of the Great Recession, the dissolution of my domestic partnership, and a recent move to the Bay Area, where I had no established ties, the strong black woman myth no longer served me. The expectation of strength distracted others from supporting me through my depression and anxiety. In 2008, I was unemployed for 10 months and was on public assistance. During the recession, poverty rates for black female-headed households jumped, and LGBTQ-targeted hate crimes rose. In nearby Richmond, California, an openly gay, 28-year-old woman was attacked and gang raped, on a street outside her parked car. I was 28 years old at the time, and feeling most vulnerable to these social upheavals.

“She” is an act of creative courage to bring my authentic self into being, amongst these broader social forces, and to reshape language to voice my truth. The usage of hip-hop idioms and English Creole speak to my coming of age in Brooklyn, New York, my paternal roots in Guyana, and reminds me of my cultural inheritance. In spite of dislocation and deprivation, my ancestors used the resources they had to express the material and spiritual conditions of their lives. A city girl by all means, this was the first time I actively sought out nature as a restorative resource. I found peace and a greater sense of connection while hiking amongst the redwoods or watching and walking around Lake Merritt, which was across the street from my studio apartment, and now serves as the primary setting for “She.”

The pieces written now, and shared here, point to major events on the narrative arc that I need to write into and out of. Overall, I thinking to contain the narrative within the ten stages of the heroine journey, and to have She encounter characters, inspired by those from our historical past and present, as she makes her revolution around the Lake. Additionally, I would like for the poetic drama to open with the main character going to a Sister Outsiders’ (S.O.S) meeting—the name is borrowed from Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider. For the purposes of the poetic drama, S.O.S is a group of women of color, led by an ecotherapist who uses nature as a part of the mental-healing process. She joins the group and sets on a journey to find her yam (her truth).

Arisa White-IMG_3880-SmallArisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst. She’s a Cave Canem fellow and the author of Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. With funding from the City of Oakland, Post Pardon was adapted into an opera. As 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, Arisa self-published a collection of epistolary poems addressed to her estranged father, and then traveled to Guyana to give him a copy of the book. A regional representative for Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, Arisa is a BFA faculty member at Goddard College and a research assistant at San Francisco State University’s The Poetry Center, where she is developing a curriculum on Black Poets in the Poetry Archives. Forthcoming in 2016 is the chapbook Black Pearl, from Nomadic Press in March, and the full-length collection you’re the most beautiful thing that happened, from Augury Books in October. arisawhite.com