co- + exist
By Maurya Kerr, 2021/22 Poetry & the Senses Community Fellow
The application prompt around the theme of coexistence—
The word coexistence has a spatial component, and implies the sharing of space or cohabitation within overlapping territories; it also has a temporal dimension, suggesting simultaneous presence with others in the same moment in time. We seek fellows whose work engages capaciously with issues of mutuality, synchronicity, interdependence, and care – from enlivening exchanges between beings, to the porous line between animate and inanimate, to the challenges of living together on our planet, to the uncanny shivers of coincidence.
As a mixed-race woman living in societal binary constructs, I’m constantly learning how to coexist within myself. At the beginning of this year I started a new series of poems about mixed-race-ness exploring multitudinous identity, collisions and slippages of interior experience and external appearance, and lineages of love and violence. I am interested in how the afterlives of slavery exist as indelible connective tissue, across the history and bodies of my ancestors. My light-skinned Blackness offers me privilege and safety in its proximity to whiteness; it is also the product of the rapes of the Black women of my family and beyond throughout time. How can my self-care of poetic investigation and reinvention also heal the harm my great-great grandmother endured, give her voice?
Our first meeting as a cohort—
We each briefly introduced ourselves, shared a poem, and spoke to the theme of coexistence. I was so moved, and woken up, when Vincente Perez (graduate student fellow) spoke about the value in choosing to not coexist. To paraphrase Vincente, “why aspire for coexistence in a society that wants me / us dead?” Truth and truth upon truth.
In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body.
I’ve been thinking about the beauty and despondency of coexistence.
I love this sense of the word’s etymology:
coexist (v.) “exist at the same time as another,” from co- + exist.
co- a living prefix meaning “together, mutually, in common”
exist (v.) from Latin existere / exsistere “to step out, stand forth, emerge, appear, exist, be.”
I imagine appearing and existing into all the deep goodness this life could offer, together, mutually, and in common. The lion and the lamb. Brightest dawn and blackest dark. You and me.
This meaning gets trickier, less luminous:
coexist (v.) exist at the same time or in the same place. (of nations or peoples) exist in mutual tolerance despite different ideologies or interests.
What if, when colonizers landed here, instead instituting a mass genocide of the land’s indigenous inhabitants, they had chosen instead to “exist in mutual tolerance despite different ideologies or interests,” with both the land and its peoples? What if, instead of lynching 3,446 Black people between 1882 and 1968, whiteness had been able to simply “exist at the same time or in the same place” with us? In the never-ending violence of anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman, and anti-truth fervor, mutual tolerance sounds idyllic. And it is not enough.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
But I am also wary of coexistence / mutual tolerance as euphemism, code, and excuse to not love—you stay there, over there.
Whiteness and patriarchy cannot bear to simply be or let others be—they must subjugate, terrorize, and kill.
I never want to be merely tolerated. (And yes, recognizing my own reciprocal complicity.) I want to be fucking seen, listened to, celebrated, and cherished—and to requite. I want to exist in the same space and time in relationships where silence is the deepest of intimacies, not a manifestation of inertia, hurt unsaid, love unsung. I want to emerge together, grimy and brimming, from thickets of joy and sorrow, solidarity and fracture. I want to stand forth in common, run clear through with mutual generosity for each other, and the world. I want to exist in shimmering, shivery simultaneity with my beloveds, my families, the animals who bless my life, my body, my peers, my people, my ancestors, my futures, this earth, language. I want and I want and I want. Together.
Don’t set up barriers,
My unsheathed heart
hurtles toward you.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
lucille clifton, “jasper texas 1998” from Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, BOA Editions, Ltd., 2000.
Claribel Alegria, poem source unknown.
Maurya Kerr is a bay area-based writer, educator, and artist. Maurya’s poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and appears or is forthcoming in multiple journals, including Inverted Syntax, Chestnut Review, Tupelo Quarterly, little somethings press, and an anthology, “The Future of Black: Afrofuturism, Black Comics, and Superhero Poetry.” Much of her artistic work, across disciplines, is focused on Black and brown people reclaiming their birthright to wonderment. Maurya was recently chosen by Jericho Brown as a runner-up in Southern Humanities Review’s 2021 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize, and her first chapbook, MUTTOLOGY, will be published with Harbor Editions in 2022. Image by Kimara Dixon.
Note: Over the course of the fall semester, each 2021-22 ARC Fellow will submit a short blog post relating to the theme coexistence. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! Poetry and the Senses creates meaningful opportunities for engagement, research, and collaboration. This multi-year initiative explores the relevance and urgency of lyrical making and storytelling in times of political crisis, and the value of engaging the senses as an act of care, mindfulness, and resistance. To learn more about the program, click here.