With Thanks to Janisse

Poetry on fire. That’s the way Janisse Ray caught our attention, we 450 water warriors and river rats, assembled for the 2011 River Rally in Charleston, South Carolina.  She stopped us cold with her poem, accelerated  by passion. Seated with our lunches in the Charleston Convention Center ballroom, forks arrested mid-way to mouths, it would have been blasphemous to chew while the oracle dispensed manna from the river gods.
I, for one, had never heard of Janisse Ray, but I will never forget her. She spoke to us of why our work was so important, how the planet cried for our help. I wanted to take notes, to try to capture her dance of words, but even the scratching of pen on paper seemed a violation of the crowd’s stillness.
“Who is this woman, and where did she come from?” I wondered to myself. I wanted to be her. To be able to speak with fire, with poetry, with the courage to bare her sole to a sea of strangers. And to speak of the urgency of our work, the importance of healing the planet, the mercy that voiceless creatures deserve.
Janisse Ray is many things, but most people probably know her as the author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, her personal tale of growing up poor in the backwoods of Georgia, and now of the recently released volume of poetry A House of Branches.   I found Cracker Childhood on Amazon, and the book of poetry can be purchased from her directly by with a check to Janisse Ray, 895 Catherine T. Sanders Rd, Reidsville GA 30453. The price of $16 for paperback or $27 for hardback includes shipping.
I also found an essay “Track Back” from Orion magazine on riding the train in a modern era online. When I read it, I heard her voice coming through, which is half of the magic. And I hear her again telling us that the uphill battle of restoring the planet’s balance may require hope, but hope when faced with a daunting task requires courage, and courage is really about love. Hope, courage, love.
Yesterday, I returned home to Wisconsin on an unseasonably warm June day that wasn’t much different than the 99-degree day I left behind in South Carolina. My first act was to be welcomed by our useless but loveable dog Maple, who joined me as I wandered the perimeter of the yard, checking each Trillium, each broccoli, each hill of squash I planted just days earlier in our little urban corner of the planet. And I breathed. And I accepted that I may not be Janisse Ray, nor will I ever be. But in my little bit of garden, and my little bit of water work, in my little community of Wauwatosa , I’m okay being me. But I’ll do my work with hope, with courage, and with love.
Janisse, thank you for being you.
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