ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Mother and son appeared to have been dead for hours, one source familiar with the scene told the paper.

Shore said on Wednesday by phone that her family was still in Vermont and knew little about what had happened

in their Washington home. "We feel just horrible." Vazirani's editor described her as a warm, intelligent

person whose poems explored the two worlds that immigrants inhabit.



Books by Yusef Komunyakaa

I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head / Dien Cai Dau / Magic City / Neon Vernacular / Toys in a Field

Thieves of Paradise / Talking Dirty to the Gods  /  Pleasure Dome Jazz Poetry Anthology  /  The Second Set  /  Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy

Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries

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Books by Reetika Vazirani

White Elephants World Hotel

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Our Sincere Condolences Go Out

to the Family of Reetika Vazirani 

& Poet Yusef Komunyakaa

For Their Loss & This Trying Time

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India-born poetess, son found dead in Washington

India-born poet Reetika Vazirani and her two-year-old son were found dead with their wrists slashed at their house in a posh section of the US capital. Vazirani, who used verse to describe her experience as a child and as an Indian immigrant was staying with her son Jahan for the summer in the the Chevy Chase home of her friend and novelist Howard Norman and poet Jane Shore, who are spending the summer at their home in Vermont.

Police have found a note from the scene with references to the boy's father, Pulitzer prize winning poet and Princeton University professor Yusef Komunyakaa. Police called the deaths an apparent murder-suicide, pending an official ruling, The Washington Post reported quoting sources.

Neighbors and friends told reporters that there had been signs that Vazirani was distraught. The day before the incident, the poetess had a meeting with a neighborhood catholic priest and borrowed a Bible from a neighbor. Komunyakaa could not be reached and relatives in the area refused to comment.

Vazirani's first book White Elephants  fetched her a Barnard New Women Poet Prize in 1996 and her second book World Hotel  won the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf-Book Award.
Percival D'Silva, a priest at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, whom Vazirani met a day before her death, said, "She was distraught." A friend said Vazirani had spoken to her about personal problems, some involving her relationship with Professor Komunyakaa.

But Denise King-Miller said Vazirani had come to dinner on Monday and seemed upbeat. "Her conversation with me was really about how she was going to move forward." Before 8 a.m. (local time) on Wednesday, King-Miller said, Vazirani left her a voice mail saying, "I think I'm going to hurt myself." King-Miller said she got the message later and began calling Vazirani every hour but got no answer.

Also that day, a police source told the Post, Vazirani left a voice mail for another friend saying, "I'm having a kind of emergency now, and I wanted to make sure you could let yourself in." The friend visited the house before 4.30 p.m. and found the bodies lying parallel to one another on the floor with two large kitchen knives nearby.

Mother and son appeared to have been dead for hours, one source familiar with the scene told the paper. Shore said on Wednesday by phone that her family was still in Vermont and knew little about what had happened in their Washington home. "We feel just horrible." Vazirani's editor described her as a warm, intelligent person whose poems explored the two worlds that immigrants inhabit.

"She's truly an international, lyrical poet, an accomplished lyrical story-teller," said Sam Hamill, whose Copper Canyon Press published Vazirani's second book. "She wrote about being in both cultures and between both cultures." "Vazirani definitely was one of the writers to watch," said E. Ethelbert Miller, King-Miller's husband and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.

"She was really representing the new Indian voice, in dealing with the issue of finding one's place, or home after immigration." Vazirani was a writer-in-residence last year at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Later this year, she and Komunyakaa were to join the faculty at Emory University in Atlanta. "This is a terrible loss for all of us at Emory, as well as the world of poetry," said Jim Grimsley, director of the university's creative writing program.

Source: Washington Post, July 18, 2003 18:01 IST


Reetika Vazirani, born in India in 1962, came to the US with her family in 1968. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1984 and late received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for travel and study in India, Thailand, Japan, and China. She then graduated with a Hoyns Fellow from the University of Virginia with her M.F.A.

She as also the recipient of Discovery/The Nation Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Poets & Writers Exchange Program Award, fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers conferences, the Glenna Luschei/Prairie Schooner Award for her essay, "The Art of Breathing," which appears in the anthology How We Live our Yoga (Beacon 2001). 

Vaziran, author of World Hotel (book of poems, 2002) was also a Contributing and Advisory Editor for Shenandoah and a guest poetry editor of two issues. She was also a book review editor for Callaloo and a Senior Poetry Editor of the new journal, Catamaran, which featured work by artists from South Asia. She translated poems from Urdu. Her work was translated into Italian.

She lived in Trenton, New Jersey with her family, the writer Yusef Komunyakaa, and their son Jahan. She was Writer-in-Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA., with the intent of joining the English department at Emory University.

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Two Cities

By Reetika Vazirani 

That 4 a.m. I lay
back on the living room
couch, seeing as it was
still night. At 5 a.m.
Elle's light in Unit B
upstairs came on, and she
sailed down the wooden steps
and drove off to bake bread
until two. Then I thought
of you doing to me
those things you described on
the phone. I in utter
surprise kept asking, Would
you really? Yes, you would.
But you had not phoned me
this morning, though it flew
anyway: I heard you
patiently interrogate.
At first I didn't know
what to do.

      Six years later
this was better for all
the time taken out, gone
were the unimportant
miles between our cities,
even better than on
the phone or in person,
though it was without doubt
only you in your absence.
Then the sun rose, wiping
away this entanglement,
as I shake creases out
of the sheets and fold them
like a note I will send
to tell you how things are
going, pretty much the
same and good on this end.

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Going to See the Taj Mahal

By Reetika Vazirani


When we set out on the train to Agra
I thought, What an old palace we are going to see,
        it’s an old grave.
I was tired when we reached the station and you hired a taxi
to take us to the steps of the Taj Mahal;
you couldn’t even wait until morning,
said it was something to take in by moonlight,
white marble against black sky is a great sight in moonlight
        you said
(marble just cleaned for a holiday).
And there beyond our driver’s wheel I saw the domes—
the large dome and the four surrounding domes.
The silhouette stood out so clearly that for a moment
I forgot this fact in the midst of the splendor
(the long stretch of grass leading up to the site):
the Empress Mumtaz, she bore fourteen heirs for Shah Jahan—
absurd to forget Mumtaz at her marble grave,
marble banded with prophecy and verse.

But what did I know of the Empress except this tomb?
So I pictured her this way:
she was not a beauty, nor especially devout
(always slow to cover her head).
On Thursdays when the open market came past the red
        stone quarry,
she dressed as her handmaid
and took a poor cloth sack into town
where she bartered for beads women wore on ordinary days;
and secretly with cheap dyes she’d paint herself into the wild
        casual beauty of youth
(the kohl inexpertly applied but alluring).
Then she gave her sack away or left it on the road
should someone find it hoarded in her suite—
the Empress buying this five-and-dime garbage!
And she imagined her life without the constant royal curfew.
There were places she couldn’t go—there were even daily
        attractions at the well,
attractions too scandalous to list.

If only the Emperor’s architects knew her!—
to free them from the illusions which inspired the tomb,
to free them from the wished-for glamour of a Mumtaz.

*   *   *   *   *


Instructions for Building Straw Huts

By Yusef Komunyakaa


First you must have

unbelievable faith in water,

in women dancing like hands playing harps

for straw to grow stalks of fire.

You must understand the year

that begins with your hands tied

behind your back,

worship of dark totems

weighed down with night birds that shift their weight

& leave holes in the sky. You must know

what's behind the shadow of a treadmill--

its window the moon's reflection

& silent season reaching

into red sunlit hills.

You must know the hard science

of building walls that sway with summer storms.

Locking arms to a frame of air, frame of oak

rooted to ancient ground

where the door's constructed last,

just wide enough for two lovers

to enter on hands & knees.

You must dance

the weaverbird's song

for mending water & light

with straw, earth, mind, bright loom of grain

untortured by bushels of thorns.

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Conversations with Yusef Komunyakaa

Edited by Shirley A. James Hanshaw

Conversations with Yusef Komunyakaa brings together over two decades of interviews and profiles with one of America's most prolific and acclaimed contemporary poets. Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947) describes his work alternately as "word paintings" and as "music," and his affinity with the visual and aural arts is amply displayed in these conversations. The volume also addresses the diversity and magnitude of Komunyakaa's literary output. His collaborations with artists in a variety of genres, including music, dance, drama, opera, and painting have produced groundbreaking performance pieces. Throughout the collection, Komunyakaa's interest in finding and creating poetry across the artistic spectrum is made manifest.

For his collection Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, 1977-1989, Komunyakaa became the first African American male to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Through his work he provides keen insight into life's mysteries from seemingly inconsequential and insignificant life forms ("Ode to the Maggot") to some of the most compelling historical and life-altering events of our time, such as the Vietnam War ("Facing It"). Influenced strongly by jazz, blues, and folklore, as well as the classical poetic tradition, his poetry comprises a riveting chronicle of the African American experience.

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 5 March 2012




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