(an open letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo after death)
Shall we suffer for art?
find miracles in the silent and widely absurd,
mingle ash upon ash, bone upon bone,
tell stories of demons without faces and laugh
at this thing we call death
drink liquid sunflowers,
lie beneath starry nights,
toast our journey beyond
nightmares on canvas,
toast the carpenter who supplied frames
for our pictures and graves
what a useful man, helping me frame
both life and death.
I sometimes wonder how different
life would have been if I had not envied
the line between madness and genius,
if our mother had not taught me how to draw,
then resented me for painting her with
forgiving eyes –
yet, all she will remember is one macabre event,
sacrificing my ear for love,
I never prospered from self-harm,
neither ear nor heart survived,
I painted both,
by choice and by fate
The first words my daughter learned were, Daddy, No.
at 13 months she watched as I fell
into the precipice of a Greek Tragedy,
I Persephone, her father Hades.
by the time she was 5, she had learned to scream
no louder than a whisper
and repeat the clever lies I taught her
to believe: Black girls and black eyes were synonyms.
She learned to tuck her tears
where her father could not find them,
which scars, and scarves accessorized best
the morning after Armageddon
Safety plans became like fire drills. That’s why she would hide
in the back of her 1st grade classroom–better to burn than face the devil.
When she was 7, I overheard her praying,
telling God that she’d hoped she never grow up to be like me.
Telling God that she wasn’t sure if my depression would kill me first or her father.
Either way, she know what dress I would wear
and how to comb my hair
when they buried me.
I left her father that same year and cut that tree down we used to hide under
every time that monster would come out from under her bed.
Next year will be 10 years since I left her father. Her sister, only 5,
can’t understand why we go back
to that same tree trunk every year to count the rings; I know my daughter
is still afraid of fire drills, and I have yet to throw away my scarves.
They say 1 in 3 women
will experience violence in their lifetime. I have two
daughters, both who have inherited my eyes.
Kelly "Native Child" Mays is a spoken word artist, award winning slam poet, mother, word warrior, womanist, domestic violence survivor, and mental health therapist. She spends her days bridging the gap between conservative and radical feminism, volunteering on the speaker's bureau of various nonprofits dedicated to educating and ending domestic violence. She incorporates poetry into her activism, therapy, and into her everyday life. A Detroit native, she is proud of both her American Indian ancestry and her African American Ancestry, she blends both worlds into her poetry. Some of her more recent accomplishment includes, finalist in the 2018 Motown spoken word artist of the year, winner of the 2017 Motown Round Robin Spoken Word Competition.
I have always been fascinated with the work of Vincent Van Gogh, how he managed to create beauty
beyond despair. I have struggled with depression, managing symptoms, desiring a life beyond
depression; however, I have found that some of my best work has come through tragedy and trauma. I
admire Van Gogh’s commitment to painting and his relationship with his brother Theo.
I wrote this poem after researching the life of Van Gogh’s brother Theo, and the devotion he had for his
brother. Theo, a renowned art dealer himself, was dedicated to his brother until his death. Post mortem
they were buried next to each other, and I thought what would it be like if we could talk to those who
loved us the most one last time after they were gone? I though it appropriate to do it in the open letter
format because both Van Gogh and his brother were devoted to each other and wrote regularly to each
other. Why not continue the letters after death?
I grew up listening to the stories my mother told me about her abusive- alcoholic father, lived through
the hurricane that was my abusive alcoholic father, and inherited the disposition of collecting broken
toys. I wrote this poem in the hopes that I would tell my story as well as pass a warning onto my
daughters and that they might inherit the same disposition.
This poem was particularly hard to write, I had to be honest with myself, my trauma, and with the fear I
have about my daughters. It is one of the pieces I am particularly proud of because it helped me process
the trauma of domestic violence and encapsulate my fears. Every time I perform it, I feel like I am
reclaiming a piece of me lost to trauma."