Spare and Flagrant: The Poetry of Marilyn Buck

Published Women’s Review of Books, November 2012

Inside/Out: Selected Poems, by Marilyn Buck. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012, 128 pp., $13.95, paperback.

The publication of this collection is cause for celebration among hundreds of friends and admirers of Marilyn Buck, who died on August 3, 2010. She was a white woman from Texas who gave her life for the Black liberation struggle, an activist whom several African Americans, including the late Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) have compared to John Brown, the white anti-slavery fanatic who followed his understanding of Christianity to a warrior’s death.

On the website of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Austin, the Rev. Ken Clark, recounting key events in parish history, writes:  “The most notable was the Rev. Louis Buck’s attempt to integrate St. Andrew’s Episcopal School...which did not sit well with all of the flock.” 

In fact, Rev. Buck had a cross burned on his front lawn and lost the parish some members.

His daughter Marilyn, born in 1947, would carry the fight for justice and Christian love, two causes not necessarily always linked in this nation, to multiple federal prisons, where she spent 29 years of her life. As Mariann Wizard, her friend since 1966 has written: “Marilyn was accused of sensational acts of insurrection __ including jail break, bombings, and a robbery attempt in which two police officers were shot and died.”

While some may chafe at my description of Marilyn Buck as a Christian, I submit that she was not the first pastor’s kid to develop a distrust for church, having closely observed its hypocrisies, while at the same time yearning for a brotherhood with the poor as practiced in the Gospel.

Consider“Jasper, TX,” which she wrote in memory of James Byrd, Jr., the African American man dragged three miles behind a pick-up truck until his head snapped off. Jasper liesabout four hours due west of Temple, where Marilyn grew up, and her poem recreates a dreamy memory of a typical weekend:

1958

Saturday bare feet dusted red

on East Texas roads

shrieks slice heavy summer air

white children play

fearless in pine_shadowed lanes

till darkfall

we’re called in

behind screen doors

 

Sunday sermons spill

out windows

in sticky heat our washed feet

bound in oxfords

& patent leather swing

while ladies in flower_print dresses

bob hats perched on dishwater curls

in prayer to God . . .

some other God?

than the one down the road

in churches where Black families

pray for deliverance

from nights of crossburnings

or lynchings

                        amen

 

1998

Pine_drenched night

once barefoot white killer_boys

play Drag_a_Black_Man

tear sleepy red roads awake

with dusty devils of terror

behind their pick_up

James Byrd’s bound feet carve

a bloody ribbon

his screams cut off

by the lynching chain

dancing in the dirt

 

James Byrd could not

get behind a screen door

in time

This crime began on a Saturday evening, as Mr. Byrd, 49, was returning from his niece’s bridal shower, and the poet refrains from listing the hideous details. Instead, she indicts the white church which, forty years before, had concocted a god for worship that was inexplicably indifferent to the violence that threatened Black families. Mr. Byrd’s feet were chained to the pick-up, and this single detail dominates the poem, in the “bare feet” of the children playing, the “washed feet” of the white congregation, bound in “oxfords and patent leather,” in the “once barefoot white killer-boys” and in the “dancing” of the victim’s “bound feet.”   

The driver of the pick-up is today serving a “life sentence” in Texas and eligible for parole in 2038. Which is to say that a hate crime against a Black man gets 40 years, while joining the Black liberation struggle – with never a charge of murder – gets you 80. This is the fine print of the criminal justice system, something Buck had surely figured out long before she spent her freshman year at U.C. Berkeley and became “radicalized.”

Marilyn Buck 1947-2010, Photo courtesy Marilyn Buck

Marilyn Buck 1947-2010, Photo courtesy Marilyn Buck

Buck first went to prison at age 26 for having bought two boxes of ammunition using false ID, the extravagant 10-year sentence due to her affiliation (the newspapers said “gunrunner”) with the Black Liberation Army, that is, the militant wing of the Black power movement. The year was 1973 and the government’s war against the Party was in full swing; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had famously described the Black Panther Party as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." Buck was one of handful of committed white sympathizers who believed that lip service and cash were not enough; that whites must suffer the same physical risks as Blacks in the movement.

Buck did her time at Alderson FPC, a federal prison for women in West Virginia, where she sympathized with the causes supported by other political prisoners she met there, including Puerto Rican independence fighter Lolita Lebron, New York BLA member Assata Shakur,, and Rita “Bo” Brown, of the George Jackson Brigade. For the rest of her life, she would feel solidarity with political prisoners from all over the world.

In 1977, four years into her sentence, Buck failed to return from a furlough and went underground. When she was finally captured, eight years later, she faced trial on four separate issues: her own escape; the 1979 escape of Assata Shakur, in which she was alleged to have been an accomplice; participation in a 1981 attempt, botched, to rob a Brinks armored truck of $1.6 million, in which a guard was killed; and the so-called Resistance Conspiracy Case, in which a number of government sites in New York and Washington were bombed. The group gave advance warning by phone to avoid human injury. 

Re-jailed at age 37, Buck was sentenced to 80 years. These dates are important for an understanding of her poem, “Imperatives,” which speaks frankly about the poet’s fear, not of rape, but of the end of sexuality. The poet begins by describing herself at 17, 

                                   wrapped around a young man’s back

on a BMW that wound up mountains

to a naked lunch

on ice_planted crags

pounded by the Pacific

and, then at age 30, when she first went underground and was “entrancing” as “a subversive siren in a sea / of easily parted waves of dark_eyed lovers.”         

The poem ends in direct address to an unmet lover who might yet rescue her:

awaken passion one more time

I am in danger!

the zodiac abandons me

to land_locked shadows

they smother me flat

I cannot breathe without

the vivid rainbow edge


find me

free me from pale dry days

of drab restraint

In prison, Buck discovered ceramics and writing, two avenues of escape from this drab restraint, though she quickly figured out that the writing best be poetry: “I could not write a diary or a journal; I was a political prisoner. Everything I had was subject to investigation, invasion and confiscation. I was a censored person. In defiance, I turned to poetry, an art of speaking sparely, but flagrantly."

She took some workshops in prison where she discovered a serious gift. She took a number of prizes through the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program, including first place, in the 2000-01 competition. Later, she earned a master’s degree in the Poetics Program that Robert Duncan had founded at the New College of California. Her correspondence with David Meltzer, the San Francisco Beat poet who was herteacher, developed into a friendship, and Meltzer edited and wrote the introduction for this book.    

That gift is heard in her poem “Woman’s Jazz Band Performs at Women’s Prison” where saxophone and trombone play old favorites like “Green Dolphin Street” and “Route 66,” the song titles woven into the text as witty double entendres, at which Buck was skilled, and the poem’s rhythm approximating the music itself, as in the final stanzas: 

momma bass breaks from behind

grey_laced shadows

shrugs ‘cause drum’s detained

scats

            wake up women

            take down the drab


keyboard skitters yeah

walks her bass between

cracks kicking down doors

keys reign supreme

prisoners stir

from catacombs of muzak misery

That same ear for music enables her to capture voice, as in “Prison Chant,” where she captures the frantic litany of a mother trying to calm her adult children over the telephone. It’s a household gone into meltdown, an absent parent’s worst nightmare:

PRISON CHANT

Cassandra is on the phone

her screams bounce off walls

staccato chant


jesusfathergod

jesusfathergod

Maurice listen to me

Stop listen to me

listen

listen

you must be responsible

I’m not there

take care of your sister

help her

I don’t care

she’s young

you’re grown

20 is grown

I’m sorry you must

be responsible

I’m not there


Let me talk to her

LISA LISA

jesusfathergod

Stop

listen to me

listen to your brother

TIME OUT

what’s going on

Stop STOP STOP

jesusfathergod

I’m sorry


no the phone has cut me off

I need more time

please let me call again

I know you’re next

please

please jesusfathergod

I must call back

I’m going to call again

I know it’s your turn

you have to wait


Maurice I’m sorry

I’m not there

what can I do

I know your brother’s dead

yes I told

I had to

to come home

yes I’m still here

you’re there

you’re alive

Cassandra, the poet calls her, an inmate both insane and prophetic. When this modern day Cassandra emphatically demands a second turn on the telephone, braving the anger of the women in line behind her, the poet takes the situation to the edge of comedy. But, instead, the second phone call delivers tragedy; the voice has turned repentant, broken as the reason for the hysterical scene at home is revealed: 

            I know your brother’s dead / yes I told / I had to / to come home

Cassandra has betrayed her family in an attempt to get out of prison and has, in turn, been betrayed by the system:

            yes I’m still here / you’re there / you’re alive

One can read in this poem not only the poet’s impeccable ear, but a deep compassion for her sisters in jail, including those whose circumstances were so different from her own. There are many testaments on the Internet to Buck’s ministry to inmates, including translation from the Spanish and tutoring.

The last federal prison in which Marilyn served, the Federal Medical Center (FMC) Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, is where the medically or mentally ill women end up in the federal system. Buck was sent there when she was diagnosed with an aggressive uterine cancer, and granted early release from there in July 2010 at the request of her attorneys, which permitted her to die, twenty days later, in Brooklyn, New York, surrounded by friends.   

Later, in December of that same year, New York attorney Lynne Stewart was sent to Carswell for having "helped terrorists" by way of violating a gag order in her defense of her client, "the blind sheik."  Stewart, whom I know from our shared concern – hers obviously more costly than my own – for the scapegoating of Muslims in America, is my only direct link with Buck, and the only person to whom I wrote asking for a quote. Lynne writes back:

“I never actually did time with Marilyn but from the time of her capture, until her release I was in touch with her and the wonderful lawyers who never gave up her fight. I refer, of course, to Susan Jordan and Soffiyah [Elijah]...

“I can only relate her tremendous influence on the women in this mostly hopeless place. She was an inspiration to everyone when as she got sicker and sicker she became more and more indomitable...and it is this image that the women of Carswell remember and revere. When I received photos and the brochure from her Memorial Service, women here were weeping anew at the loss and begging for a picture of her. Marilyn was truly loved.”

Reading Buck’s poem “Continuum,” I’m reminded of T. S. Eliot’s contention that “...the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates...”  I’d have to agree that it is “less perfect” as art, but it is unique among the 88 poems in this collection, in that it might well stand as her credo:

CONTINUUM

stocks and bonds tied tight

public dunkings and drownings

massacres and land grabs

Indian scalps Vietnamese

ears on belts posed in

front of tiger cages

shackles and manacles

whips across African backs

chained in darkness below decks

boiled in oil tendons cut

for fleeing from the terror

genitals ripped lynchings

rape sanctioned under law

children sold further South

collective punishment

solitary confinement

food mixed with piss

pushed through metal door slots

four_pointed bodies on steel slabs

paraded naked, testicles twisted

only urine to drink are you

thirsty yet

electrified cattle prods

alligator clips on eyelids

on vaginal lips

restraint chairs strung up by arms

isolated

in the dark       in the light

no sleep deprived of diurnal rhythm

humiliated, beaten bloodied

accidental death


forced to tell a story constructed

by the captors


the secrets behind the American dream

democracy behind steel_bolted


doors. Inquisition never sleeps

its eyes probe with laser

beams of national security

and manifest destiny

If “Continuum” represents her beliefs, “Wild Poppies,” also included in the selectionrepresents her spirit. It is the title poem of a CD made in 2004, where two dozen poets, including Sonia Sanchez and Devorah Major, whom Marilyn so admired, read her works aloud. One could love this writer on the strength of this poem alone:

WILD POPPIES

I remember red poppies, wild behind the school house

I didn’t want to be there, but I loved to watch the poppies


I used to sit in the window of my room, sketching charcoal trees

what happened to those magnolia trees, to that girl?


I went off to college, escaped my father’s thunderstorms

Berkeley. Rebellion. Exhilaration!


the Vietnam war, Black Power, Che took me to Chicago

midnight lights under Wacker Drive. Uptown. South Side. slapped

by self_determination for taking Freedom Wall photos without asking


on to California, driving at 3:00 in the morning in the mountains

I got it: what self_determination means

a daunting task for a young white woman, I was humbled

            practice is concrete . . . harder than crystal_dream concepts


San Francisco, on the front steps at Fulton Street

smoking reefer, drinking “bitterdog” with Black Panthers and white

hippie radicals, talking about when the revolution comes


the revolution did not come. Fred Bennett was missing

we learned he’d been found: ashes, bones, a wedding ring

but later there was Assata’s freedom smile


then I was captured, locked into a cell of sewer water

spirit deflated. I survived, carried on, glad to be

like a weed, a wild red poppy

rooted in life

In his introduction to this volume, Meltzer writes that once when he was visiting Buck at FCI Dublin, she mentioned that she “wanted to be judged not as a political prisoner poet, but simply as a poet.”

I feel that there are writers – Karen Blixen, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston – whose lives were so unique that an appreciation of their work deepens with an acquaintance with the life, and that Buck’s work can best be appreciated in terms of her commitment to anti-imperialist activism and her internment in federal prisons for nearly three decades.

Buck somehow managed to find, in that harsh confinement so unfamiliar to most of us, not only meaning and friendship, but to impart to the world through her work, moments of insight, consolation and joy.

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