Nuclear Waste: poetry & collage by Mary Hope Whitehead Lee
Mary Hope Whitehead Lee is one of those writers that once you read their work you just want to read every word. The weight of the language in this poetry is a kind of miracle or paradox - light, direct, intimate, but carrying such force and tonnage in meaning, resonance & import. I first encountered Lee’s writing through the landmark anthology This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldua, in which the poem “on not bein” explores how societies' expectations and pressures around race impact on individuals sense of their own freedoms and identities:
she never wanted
no never once
did she wanna
be white/to pass
dreamed only of bein darker
she wanted to be darker
I think of Wanda Coleman’s great essay “ASK” in which she writes:
People don’t ask when people don’t know.
I can’t count the times I have been embarrassed, lost a budding friendship (even a job opportunity), or gotten into life-threatening trouble because of the assumptions others make about me based on skin color, grade of hair and gender. ”
The writing of Mary Hope Whitehead Lee is always so compelling, so thought-provoking, and the language positively heaves with the fullest political and emotional force (those two things are the same so often or even always, right?!)
Lee’s work is always attuned to life, to the ways in which lives get devalued. Her hugely powerful elegy, “the disappeared” enacts acknowledgement and respect, marking human lives that get institutionally erased.
so many human lives
scoured into oblivion
their spirits swirling in the desiccated air
That phrase “desiccated air” is full of swirling meanings: it suggests the dryness of the air, its thirsty heat. It also evokes a sudden dehydration - a draining. There’s also something in the consonance of the double “cc” following on from the soft wispy sibilance of “spirits swirling” - the difficulty of actually saying something, of getting words out. Perhaps because of these sounds I’m reminded too that “air” means song. It isn’t just the air that can be dehydrated of its moisture and energy such that breathing or talking takes effort. It’s poetry too.
Another poem by Lee, named ‘Huitzilopochtli’ after the Aztec god of sun and war - "gluttonous god of war / of human sacrifice", is a poem that takes inspiration from Frida Kahlo and her relation with Diego Rivera:
his hunger exceeds
my capacity to feed him
i have 400 hearts
he has eaten them all
Kahlo once wrote “Truth is, so great, that I wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep, or listen, or love.” A deeply complex understanding and exploration of truth underpins the work of Lee. It’s a truth that goes beyond ideas of testimony, and is almost a revealing of those truths that get passed over. In Lee’s work these truths are reanimated through her poetry. As bell hooks puts it “the time has come to tell the truth. Again. There is no love without justice”. This is a poem, as 'on not bein' and 'the disappeared' are too in their own ways, about waste. About the wastes of love, energy, life and being in societies that organise themselves as warring, discriminatory, unequal, racist, wasteful configurations. Achille Mbembe writes: "to be several in the same body is not only to proceed to a continuous enlargement of "
All of these much too brief reflections are by way of setting the scene for my delight and excitement when I saw that there is a new book by Lee, Nuclear Waste: collages and poems.
Here’s a note on the book from Lee:
"Nuclear Waste: poetry and collage" is the third iteration of a project that started with creating a hand cut collage on every single page of a music theory book that used to belong to my father. I used the project to purge my feelings about my biological family. Later, I created a very amateurish hand made book titled “Family Album” in which I used free clip art from books I bought at an art supply store in Oakland, California. I used monsters and fantastical creatures, family photos and found images to create collages representing my family experiences with titles such as “Family Portrait,” “Monsters in the Closet,” “Aspiring Virgin Martyr,” “Surviving Catholic School,” “Imaginary Friends and Playmates,” “Shouldering the Family Burden,” and “Self Portrait on Quilted Lake with Allies.” It was a kind of frenzy. Between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, I wrote a number of poems that seemed to come from nowhere. They were different and strange, unlike anything I’d ever written before. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to keep them. These are the words and images that found their final form in "Nuclear Waste: poetry and collage," a deeply personal exploration of the lived consequences of family violence. It is also the realization of a small handful of firsts: my first published collection of poems, my first published collection of collage art, and my first hand-sewn cardboard cover book. "Nuclear Waste: poetry and collage" was designed by Ryan Greene. Big Love to Raquel Denis for her unconditional support in helping us deliver this manuscript to the light.
A personal exploration of families and biology this certainly is. But all the way through I was struck by the contrasts in