Leaving again. If I didn't care, I wouldn't be
grieving. The particulars of place lodged in me,
like this room I lived in for eleven days,
how I learned the way the sun laid its palm
over the side window in the morning, heavy
light, how I'll never be held in that hand again.1
In lighting design, my father explains, a gobo is a tool placed inside or in front of a source to manipulate the shape of the beam and its shadow.
This is the red microbe of my father’s being. My brother and I see the world through his hazel profile: slats of light; dappled clouds; fungus swirls; splinters of glass; fireworks and the smoky ghosts they leave behind; snowflakes; branches; raindrops; stars.
This summer, I completed my graduate program at Pacific University, traveling counter-clockwise across nine states to live in a dorm room for ten days. Between my bedroom window and the sidewalk’s lone floodlight, an enormous white alder flourished. The alder, backlit by the steady beam and rising Oregon half-moon, paintbrushed itself onto my bedroom wall as evening turned to night. Shapes chased one another across eggshell and particle board. Sweat-dirtied sheets moved in the presence of these oval dancers.
I reached for my phone. That first night, I spent nearly three hours standing at different angles and elevations around my room trying to photograph this leaf-light phenomenon. I was so transfixed by the way the shadows interacted with each other; doubly so by the fact that they refused to be seen through the lens of a camera.
Tired but wired, I spent most of the following day preparing for sundown. When it finally came, I paced the floor once more, trying to capture the light and dark in juxtaposition.
Hours later, frustrated, sleepy, no longer wanting to possess this curiosity, I sunk into bed and simply watched silhouettes flutter across the wall.
I could just enjoy it. Couldn’t I?
That night, I dreamt of my father hanging fresnels outside my dorm room window.
Minnie Bruce Pratt died two weeks later. She was seventy-six.
My brother is colorblind. One night, we were discussing his new EnChroma glasses, which would “allow him to see red.” I was stunned to think he would finally, after a lifetime of living in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, be able to enjoy a full spectrum of color.
Nicholas explained this is not how EnChroma glasses work; the lenses only allow people with red-green colorblindness to see a more vivid version of whatever red is to them. It does not replace, replicate, or otherwise try to “fix” the color red.
Nicholas then went on to remind me that no one on Earth actually perceives red the same way. Red is different for everyone based on the interaction of rods and cones, the function of one forever haunting the capacity of the other.
At first she thought the lump in the road
was clay thrown up by a trucker's wheel.
Then Beatrice saw the mess of feathers:
Six or seven geese stood in the right-of-way, staring
at the blood, their black heads rigid above white throats.
Unmoved by passing wind or familiar violence, they fixed
their gaze on dead flesh and something more, a bird on the wing.
It whirled in a thicket of fog that grew up from fields plowed
and turned to winter. It joined other spirits exhaled before dawn,
creatures that once had crept or flapped or crawled over the land.
Beatrice had heard her mother tell of men who passed
as spirits. They hid in limestone caves by the river, hooded
themselves inside the curved wall, the glistening rock.
Then just at dark they appeared, as if they had the power
to split the earth open to release them.
When we were kids, Nicholas and I spent many summers in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where our parents worked on summer stock theater. One evening, while taking a shortcut through the muddy riverbank on campus, Nicholas slipped, grabbing a piece of tall grass to keep from falling, and sliced his thumb against the reeds.
Despite my synesthesia, I know what happened: my brother bled the color red. But now I can’t imagine what hue he saw dripping from his skin.
From the fog above the bloody entrails of the bird, the dead flew
toward Beatrice like the night crow whose one wing rests on the evening
while the other dusts off the morning star. They gave her such a look:
Child, what have you been up to while we
were trying to keep body and soul together?
But never mind that now. Here's what you must do:
Tie a red flannel string around your waist.
Plant your roots when the moon is dark. Remember
your past, and ours. Always remember who you are.
Don't let those men fool you about the ways of life
even if blood must sign your name.3
Pratt graduated from a segregated high school and attended Alabama State University only one year after George Wallace blocked the schoolhouse door in a form of segregationist protest. The cowardice and racism surrounding Pratt arrested her attention, stimulating her budding professorial mind. This ensured her own classrooms at Syracuse University were extremely diverse, in every definition of the term. She never dismissed dissenting opinions; she invited them closer, eager for a truer understanding of what insight they held.
Everything Pratt did—whether that was writing, teaching, or enacting a life of fearless authenticity—was motivated by the hope of persuading at least one other future revolutionary to do the same.
An old photograph of a young Minnie has been circulating online since her death in early July. She’s embracing her two children, both of whom gaze boyishly at the photographer from behind dense lenses. Pratt sports a thickly-rolled handkerchief headband. This was the summer her sons helped hand-stitch the first copies of Pratt’s eventual third collection, Crime Against Nature, which was selected for the 1989 Lamont Poetry Prize and then went on to win the 1991 American Library Association Gay/Lesbian Book Award.
In the photograph, Pratt’s younger son flashes a peace sign, while her older boy rests his arm on the younger’s head. The fingers of both brothers are smudged with bright red hints of the stamp they used to press Minnie’s name across the cover of each handmade booklet.
When my brother wears his EnChroma glasses now, his eyes are instantly drawn to red objects in a room. The constant influx of red gives him a migraine.
The four people in my family can’t agree on what color the lenses are. My father says rose—unironically. My mother, purple and orange. Nicholas says blue. But I can’t really tell what color they are—they remind me of velvet’s scratchy flip side, more texture than tint. When I say this, the members of my family exchange a look.
I often think of a poem as a door that opens
into a room where I want to go. But to go in
here is to enter where my own suffering exists
as an almost unheard low note in the music,
amplified, almost unbearable, by the presence
of us all, reverberant pain, circular, endless,
which we speak of hardly at all, unless a woman
in the dim privacy tells me a story of her child
lost, now or twenty years ago, her words sliding
like a snapshot out of her billfold, faded outline
glanced at and away from, the story elliptic, oblique
to avoid the dangers of grief. The flashes of story
brilliant and grim as strobe lights in the dark,
the dance shown as grimace, head thrown back in pain.[^4]
It seems, at first glance, a cruel irony that neither of my father’s children can perceive “true” red. But truth is little more than the waltz of leaf and light on a wall two-thousand miles away.
Particulars of place lodged in me, I attempted describing the Oregon alder leaves to my father and brother, who immediately identified the similarity to gobos—but I failed to make them understand how unlike a gobo this was. How actual. How real. How you knew, when looking at the leaves, that they were what gobos tried, and failed, to recreate.
And I became suddenly aware of how I was, in turn, trying and failing to describe what happened inside me that night. How badly I wanted to capture the true pattern, and simply could not. Not even in words.
None of this seemed overly perplexing to my family, though I felt like Plato bashing his skull against the shifting walls of an enormous cave lit by a singular torch.
I could just enjoy it. Couldn’t I?
No. Because Minnie Bruce Pratt had gotten it so painfully, eloquently, perfectly right, years before I’d begun contemplating this conundrum—years before I even possessed the capacity to order the world in terms of light and color.
Heavy / light, how I’ll never be held in that hand again.
It’s unnatural to write about Minnie Bruce Pratt without referencing her life with Leslie Feinberg. Both champions of the women’s liberation movement, one was always held so steadily in the cognitive gaze of the other that they seemed cosmically aligned to revolutionize the way we view societal constructs, particularly the gender binaries we’ve established within American culture.
In a grainy photo shared online by Pratt last February, she and Feinberg gaze at each other while foliage grows furiously behind them. A red flower pins back Minnie’s hair; several more reach into the frame.
The look shared between them says it all. Minnie and Leslie were predestined to love each other.
She stays until the day grows so bright
that she cannot endure it and leaves with her hunger unsatisfied.
She bows her wings and slowly lifts into flight,
grey and slate blue against a paler sky.
I know she will come back. I see the light create
a russet curve of land on the farther bank,
where the wild rice bends heavy and ripe
under the first blackbirds. I know
she will come back. I see the light curve
in the fall and rise of her wing.4