“Unquestionably Political and Irrevocably Beautiful”
-Title and quote by Toni Morison
rejoice, rejoice the open yawn of eye-
the ear, your mouth, the soft surprise of cheek,
praise the lift of chest & this feral snare beat
underneath. praise the body that responds
to beauty & to sound. the way your skin
stirs in concert with paint pooling at the edge,
the canvas stretched, the surge of stain
& hue. praise the mind that transforms
within the journey of a single line of
poetry, how we awaken & are provoked
to act & open all in the expanse of a single
chapter. art is how the world & its ghosts
cross into us- art is how we bear witness
& evolve, how we remember & solve &
surely you’ve known-
a poem that can wake the dead. a song that
shook gently the bones of your lost love?
remember the book that raised you up?
the novel that answered the questions
you were afraid to ask? & that first
museum, remember? that marble carved
with such precision you would have bet your life
that it lived? could have nuzzled up to its cool,
cool neck & whispered your fear into its ear?
rejoice the hands that made that magic,
those grooves & bends of artist palm. praise
the painter who paints what they cannot say,
the guitar that speaks when words aren’t enough praise
the maker who makes us see beauty in the
ugliest of places, who teaches us to love
beyond what we understand.
in the beginning of-
everything- of tribe, nation, progress, of
culture- there is, always, art. art is both
foundation & frame; art is the body we
live in & the nourishment that sustains us.
thousands & thousands of decades ago,
someone pressed breath though the hallow of
an animal bone & the first musical instrument
was made. a flute. & thousands of decades
before that- voices, the rhythmic stomp of feet,
cradling the history of our oldest homes in the
flow. a rattle, rhythms to mark the movement
of the people- how we kept warm in feathers
& fur or came here in boats & tumbled onto
the shore. we danced to the fire wherever it burned,
its crackle & spit, our flail & sweat. then the clay
was crushed, sculpted into vessels hardening
in the sun, stars drawn in the dirt, maps made of
stone, muddled minerals smeared on rock,
a language built to track the hunt, warn of prey,
to honor the death & the birth, to communicate
before & beyond words. to pass the knowledge
onward. someone wrote it all down, told, sketched
& recorded our legend.
art is dangerous –
it stirs the water & threatens the power &
unapologetically keeps the score. want to
dismantle a society? get rid of the artists.
want to prevent a revolution? silence the poets.
want to erase the truth & pretty up the war?
burn the books & slash the paintings. they’ve tried,
so many times, to take the dance out of our bodies.
but when they steal the drums, we just build them
again. the art we have & the art we make,
someone protected that for us. we sang in the
fields while we labored. we sang on the frontlines,
wrote secrets poems in the foxhole & hiding under
the floor in the dark. they tried to make us believe
the lie, so we sheltered the truth in charcoal & ink.
maybe it was your great great great grandmother,
brave enough to scratch out the story. or maybe
it was your tia, your zaydee, the girl your brother loved or
maybe it was you with your ocean eyes & tender,
empathetic mind- in the rainstorm, by candlelight,
heeding the rush of pen, the swaddle of brush, your
high mountain voice lifting to the sky. the quill
swimming in dark ink, the bell & the skins, the pull
of creativity as instinctual as a blink, as necessary
as the breath.
art is not a luxury –
not an extravagance to be admired from
afar. it is lifeblood, water, essential & urgent,
the path through the forest, the irrigation burrowed
under the fertile ground of earth. art is how we
stay alive long after our bones are wind- art is how
we mark the horror & name the dead &
make manifest the dream we have of a healed &
healing world, how we tend to the break & imagine
the whole planet renewed.
we live in a time when –
horror is the daily news & honesty hides away
behind funding & pundits. there’s a history
to the relevance of art & some years have been
kinder than others. tell me, decades from now,
will the children understand how we lived?
& not just understand, will they know the
texture & taste, the shiver & hum of our
shared breath? there is fact, bent
to scholar’s whim & politic’s favor,
& then there is the truth, living among the
people. there is a difference between the
name of a color & the spread of pigment
growling on a page. there is a person,
named & aged, & then there is a portrait
drawn by the lover who loved. art tells the
truth because it is not limited by fact. &
make no mistake, art will terrify you if you
don’t want the truth. art isn’t always pretty. but
it is always beautiful, the way a storm is both
frightening & awesome. art is blue sky & art
is hurricane. art is light in the darkest of rooms
& nothing gets to hide. that’s why the musicians
were blacklisted & shunned, that’s why the poets
are starved & imprisoned. art is beyond money,
beyond what can be bought, beyond any
brick & mortar wall or barred door you can
lock. art is the preservation of the liberation
that lives way way way down in the
deepest caverns of our souls.
I know you’re busy –
that the phone is ringing & you have a meeting
& the car needs fixing. but I need something
from you. we need something from each other.
please, promise me this: the next time you
walk by a mural, will you pause to praise
the hands that made it? see the sacrifice
below the beauty. when your child doodles
the wall, give them a pencil & a sheet of paper.
say thank you to the little ones who just know,
instinctively, that moments are worth preserving.
& when you can pick up the paint instead of
the phone, when you can sing aloud in the car
instead of raging at the traffic, when you can
listen to the stories the elders tell at the table,
when you see a student or your lover or your
new friend leaning into the creative push
& pull, remember how you know what you know.
remember the writers & mapmakers & sculptors
& stompers that kept your legend safe. say: yes.
do that. make that, write that down, it’s beautiful,
it matters, the world needs you. say: let me help you.
sit down in the grass and add your mark to the page.
write I love you in the sand. stack a tower of shells
& spin circles in your bare feet. slap your thighs
when the groove moves you. be fearless in a world
that deifies fear & count yourself among the needed,
among the artists, among the creators & the
witnesses- make of this moment a sanctuary &
resist anything, resist everything,
-with your whole being resist- all that
threatens to smother the electric neon
wild eyed primal prerogative of the artist.
because without it, without art,
all of this, all of it,
© Caroline Harvey, 2019
for the Essex County Arts & Culture Summit