Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Sanctuary: A Poem by Nikki Giovanni

by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, Visitation Companion

Art Sanctuary
by Nikki Giovanni

I would always choose to be the person running
rather than the mob chasing
I would prefer to be the person laughed at
rather than the teenagers laughing
I always admired the men and women who sat down
for their rights
And held in disdain the men and women who spat
on them
Everyone deserves Sanctuary a place to go where you are
Art offers Sanctuary to everyone willing
to open their hearts as well as their eyes

“Art Sanctuary” by Nikki Giovanni, from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea. © Harper Perennial, 2002. (buy now)

Today’s poem from The Writer’s Almanac speaks to me as prayer. In critical response fashion, I take note of lines, phrases, images that stand out:

person running
laughing teenagers
sitting down for rights

open hearts and eyes

I am reminded of the summer night I saw a man running out from behind the neighbor’s across from St. Jane House in north Minneapolis followed by another person carrying a gun. The poem takes me to stories of pre-1964 southern lunch counters where people with brown skin were not allowed to eat. Simultaneously, reading this, I recall being an awkward thirteen-year old in the seventh grade and feeling the jeers of 8th grade elders (Lisa, Mary, Steph, Jamie?). I can see movie stills in my mind’s eye of Harvey Milk being assassinated as San Francisco’s first openly gay city official. I sit and imagine a beleaguered and weary Christ on Good Friday. (He was spat upon, right?) I note the way the poem provides a through-line of text for these anachronistic memories, moments.

I appreciate Ms. Giovanni’s words. I am thankful for the pride, sorrow, fear, anger and elation that her piece evokes.

I wonder how the author’s compassion was born? (It is compassion she shows in the poem, yes?) What did she see in her life or experience that inspired an alignment with the victim, the tortured, the other? What particular cruelties does she know first hand? I want to ask her how she makes sense of suffering. I want to know what art in particular has provided safety, sanctuary for her. Could she have been sitting in front of a painting that calmed her breathing, opened her heart? (Or listening to song?) I wonder if she’d let me sit alongside her? I want to know if she’s ever seen Brother Mickey’s “Windsock Visitation“? Has she ever contemplated the respite extended by Mary and Elizabeth?

I want to know a lot reading this poem. I am grateful for the places Nikki Giovanni takes me with her words. It is my prayer, today. This poem is a sanctuary.