His Name Be Witness: The Genius of Marvin K. White

The good news, girl is that you eat the heart first so you will
not love what you have to do next—divide up the brains. Do the
unthinkable. Swallowing pride is only practice for chewing on the
gristle of memory. Nothing tastes like it used to. And
fortunately the more you eat the less used to there is. Eat
the ears. The cartilage and bone, bending and snapping amongst
your teeth, the vibration of the tuning fork, pricking and picking up
the worst of what you will say to yourself to make it go down, the
worst of what will be said about you. Sopping up the juices with
the cochlear nerve is unnerving. There is no worst now. Lean in
and chew off the nose. The sinus offers us no signs. You can’t
know what the rest will smell or taste like until you taste it. You
can’t eat just any old body. One eye at a time. Kiss. Lick and bite
the lips. Keep your promise that they are exactly what you have a
taste for. Pray over this eucharist love. Leave nothing to chance or

Marvin K. White, from our name be witness

We are living in the age of Marvin K. White. Such pronouncements sound lofty when issued by anyone, particularly when he and I are running buddies dashing down our singular and collective paths to publication.But trust me, when you read this man’s work you’ll close your eyes and nod appreciatively to the gospel. He didn’t blink. Marvin’s works are significant contributions to American letters. His poetic insights are necessary places to lay your hat and rest your feet. For those seeking literature that pushes, pouts, praises and plays with language in soothing ways, you’ll find a very generous poet in Marvin. His seductive verse gently reminds us of our duty to be gracious, kind and vulnerable with each other.

Born in Oakland, California to Curley Joseph and Margaret White, Marvin was raised by a faithful mother and grandmother named Bessie. The baby of the family grew to be a skinny, delightful teenager whose eyes caught a lot of stories. Early on Marvin began to chronicle his life with words and not too few cakes. But I am getting ahead of myself.[1]

That one. Standing there on the verge of tears. That one. The one that stand out. That’s mine. Outstanding.[2]

Being a friend of Marvin’s, a brother in the word, the work and the way I’ve read drafts of his writings for years. I’ve had the honor of publishing him twice (Think Again[3] and To Be Left With the Body[4]) so I claim no impartiality, but this is not a traditional critique. Call it a public love letter to and about a brother who creates beautiful art deserving of praise. In light of his new publications, our name be witness (RedBone Press) and status (RedBone Press), I decided to sit with four of his books to celebrate. Thinking and rocking through his poems and essays I decided to write an essay that I hope highlights and embraces what this poet has to offer as a responsible witness.

1997: I met Marvin before I met him. That is, his first book, last rights got a hold of my heart and never let go. Sweet, deceptively simple verse illuminates the hard-to-hear stories of friends, lovers, family members in love and trouble. Readers always know where they are in these simple and supple poems; painful moments you may not want imagine or relive but you couldn’t ask for a better guide. Sometimes mournful, sometimes celebratory, the damaged are cleansed and made good. In “kevin the faggot,” Marvin asks readers to remember a boy, self-made, developing, clearly his own thing:

there’s a little boy on this block

where you live

he fights to wear little girl dresses

he likes the way it makes him feel

to tuck his penis between his legs

to imagine his sex an innie

he likes sitting on his uncles laps

digging through their bulging pockets

for change or other treats[5]

Homo men and boys from the neighborhood populate but, don’t overpower, the always moving, always charged, center of Marvin’s radical vision. People are loving and ridiculous—naked, butchered, shaking, yelling, dancing and leave their marks on a cunning conduit. For poems that propel and pop, last rights stands as a remarkable debut for a promising writer.

Fast forward to Chicago 2002. Marvin, the man, shows up. He becomes my roommate[6] at the first Fire & Ink writers’ festival in Chicago. He’s an all-around handsome man who laughs easy, knows everybody and everything. And did I mention he can cook his arse off?[7]

i bird

i fly

nothin’ that fly is ugly

just wing and air

nothin’ that fly ugly

just small

swallowed up by sky and god[8]

But one realizes that Marvin is slightly different from his published work. He knows more than he says. Is helpful, is kind. Holds his cards close. His poems and essays in contrast reveal, delight and revel in brilliance. Layered and lush, pain poems yell, scream, bite and cry, pleasure poem dance, dip, dive and wail like Chaka Khan. Marvin’s work is uniquely forged in experience, of hard work, of drum beating, of blood work, of dancing all night to house music, of loving fearlessly and recklessly, of one-night stands, of caretaking, and being care filled. It is a great writer who successfully translates the gasp and tremble and laugh and anger and sorrow without wasting a word. Skipping over cliché for truth, Marvin is a fingers-in-the-dirt poet: ain’t to proud to bed, plead, get dirty, be raw offering up the ugly as much as the easy-to-swallow pretty with ease and grace.

Speaking of ugly, in 2004 I blurbed his second book of poems, nothin’ ugly fly. Was glad to.  If last rights pulled back the lens to reveal a community, nothin’ ugly fly focused primarily on the man himself. Bony knees and broken teeth and bruised sweets blues rambles through the pages. Unspooled memories sing solos backed by a choir of dusky angels beating tambourines, nodding.  There’s blood here and not simply on scraped knees and elbows. There’s dangerous dreaming. There are limbs broken, reattached. There’s the stench of shame. The mundane becomes momentous. This is not your mother’s poetry. But if she had any sense at all she should read it. There’s room for those who know, don’t know, one’s who watched and later turned their heads.

we punk

we pump

we vein

we flow[9]

Marvin is a do-a-lot. He was a former member of the Pomo-Afro Homos (Postmodern Homosexuals). He also co-founded B/GLAM (Black Gay Letters and Arts Movement), whose mission is to “preserve, present and incubate black gay artistic expressions.”[10] Marvin’s poems and essays can be found in the following anthologies, Think Again, If We Have to Take Tomorrow, To Be Left With the Body, and Spirited, to name a few. And his play For Colored Boys Who Considered S-Curls When The Hot Comb Was Enough (a nod to Ntozake Shange, but more about, in the playwright’s words, “the ‘straightening’ of gay boys”[11]) enjoyed a well-received staged reading earlier this year. With our name be witness and status Marvin expands his literary insights and ambitions and the results are stunning.

our name be witness, the larger of the two books, is a compendium of women’s voices, here and gone, large and small, careful and reckless. They all got something to say about the world and how we in it. Women who need, bleed, living in house, live in the bush, live and die in men, some stiff as redwoods, others boogie-woogie in the margins of other people’s dreams, hopes and fears. Others haunt the floorboards and rattle chandeliers. One imagines little Marvin peeking in on the conversations of the women at the kitchen table. A boy who learned to cook and clean and learned the language of cotton pickers before its speakers ran north and it fell into disuse. One immediately discovers he’s a good listener and even better translator. In Marvin’s hands, words stretch, yawn, breaking the silence with a shout, a scream, murmur, whimper and wail.

Know cows layin’ down mean mosquitoes bitin’ more than fish. Know this for years. Know to arrive as the river stop slapping his shore of a wife. Know his swoll chest is a threat. Know when its mouth is full of rock and foam spit that it’s been drinkin’. Know river don’t know nothin’ but go[12]

The architecture of our name be witness is simple and elegant. Other than introductory poem, Devil’s Food, the following vignettes possess no titles and range from a few spare lines to three pages.  Guideless, readers walk with conversations, pieces of advice, ruminations or a potent spell, always interesting, always write on time. Women’s voices speak with authority, young, old, alive, dead, sometimes all of it in a line. The smells, sights and sounds are southern but rooted in an African Diasporic sensibility. Similar to Alice Childress’s 1956 classic, Like One of the Family, a collection of vignettes told from a nameless speaker to her friend Mildred about her travails of being a domestic, our name be witness captures the humor and sometimes blistering pain of an array of black women who speak plainly about the quality of the lives. These are things your mama knows.

Own your connection to and understand that most of your great acts and kindness will go unnoticed. [13]

Always head of the curve, lighting a way for folks to see Marvin’s second book, status is a compilation of a couple of years worth of Facebook statuses, 180 to be exact. His publisher calls them “commiserations, wisdoms, placeholders, remembrances, lessons guiding principles, wives’ tales, riddles, puns, purges, time management tools and helpful hints,” a collection to be read straight through or piecemeal for years to come. I dig it that Marvin takes the digital to the analog with ease bringing the gap with what could be seen as a book of advice though it never takes itself that seriously. Read a few and you can see Marvin’s signature watermark smile shining through.

As long as you are singing someone else’s song, then you are just singing along.[14]

On first glance, status looks as if our name be witness had a baby—the book is half the size, perfect for a back pocket. There are similarities tone and delivery, but status is Marvin unfettered. These quips, poems and tongue twisters don’t start a thought as much as finish one. The book itself is a conversation; you just drop in for a cup of sugar, a line or two before leaving to begin or end your day. Up South blood like his is full of the word “sometimes” and “nothin’” and “thanks” and “love.” And then there are the baking references.

Their sweetness will have little to do with you, so batter up. You can sugar or crumb coat absence. Make no excuses about leavening. Know that some cakes have to raise themselves.[15]

The digital revolution ushered in a new era of “everybody has something to say” with the introduction of blogs and comment sections on popular online sites such as Youtube or Amazon.com.  But unlike much of the mean-spirited commentary littering our digital consciousness, the distinguishing feature of status is an ethic of care. Crafted in the kitchen and braised in benevolence, this book isn’t cookie-cutter toss off ah-ha moments. Clichés in Marvin’s hands are scrubbed clean so that readers feel the power of their original message with verve. He’s a kind writer with a lot to say and says it very eloquently often in a matter of lines.

“Take some credit for just being here.”[16]

The vision, range and skill sets Marvin K. White offers places his work among soothsayers like Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton and other visionaries who wrote about people, houses, neighborhoods, dance floors, bars, prisons, and plantations and were able translate these disparate sounds for our looking and wanting eyes, ears and hearts. With these writers see the whole. We sit and eat. We remember. We are grateful. Marvin’s work will be returned to repeatedly because it feeds and dresses you and holds your hand as you grow. Like a bible, for many it will be indispensable. For me it certainly is.

[1] For more information see “The Promised Cake: An Interview in 8 Layers,” with Marvin K. White.

[2] From our name be witness. Washington DC: RedBone Press, 2011.

[3] In Think Again’s closing essay, “Moving On,” Marvin considers the black gay writers responsibility and contribution to community. Think Again. Edited by Steven G. Fullwood and Colin Robinson. New York: New York State Black Gay Network; Los Angeles: AIDS Project, 2003.

[4] An early version of one of Our Name Be Witness’s prose poems titled “14” was published in To Be Left With the Body, edited by Cheryl Clarke and Steven G. Fullwood. Los Angeles: AIDS Project, 2008.

[5] From “kevin the faggot.” last rights. Washington, DC: RedBone Press, 2004

[6] I didn’t like my assigned roommate. Marvin had a room with an extra bed. And so it was.

[7] Cooking and poetry are one in the same to Marvin. You’ll see.

[8] From nothin’ ugly fly: poems. Washington DC: RedBone Press, 2004.

[9] “going for blood.” From nothin’ ugly fly: Washington, DC: ReBone Press, 2004.

[10] For more information about B/GLAM see their Facebook page.

[11] Email. September 8, 2011.

[12] From our name be witness. Washington DC: RedBone Press, 2004.

[13] Ibid.

[14] From status. Washington DC: RedBone Press, 2004.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.