Fare Thee Well, Brenda
by Lisa Martinovic
I stare at the heavens and the sky cracks wide?”
Angels could slip through in the blinding.
Stars rip from the firmament
form letters words prophecies of light
I will watch for the miracles to fall.
I want to see the stars, Mister.
I got to see the stars.
from What I Said to the Man Installing the Hot Tub
Those are the words, the inimitable poetic voice, of Brenda Moossy: poet, slammer, mother, nurse, extraordinary soul, and beloved friend.
There will be no more poems from Brenda. She’s gone on to dazzle the heavens. For the earthbound, she left a body of work that deserves to be treasured for as long as people treasure poetry.
Brenda Joyce Moossy was born on January 21, 1949, in the small east Texas bayou town of Gladewater. She was the youngest child and only daughter of Lebanese immigrants who raised her up to be a good Catholic girl. Instead, Brenda harvested her strange and fertile roots to create poetry of stunning power and originality: she became a conjure woman of her own making.
In my prime,
I could make a creek run backwards.
I could steal food from out a buzzard’s beak
an’ if my skin turned silver enough,
I could even fly.
I could stalk a winter sun thru naked forests,
screeching the song of the peregrine.
My legs were strong of bone.
My toes would splay flat on cold, wet ground
leaf and mud would cling
to my feet like fussy babies.
Like many of us who came of age in the 50s and 60s, Brenda fled home as soon as she could chart her escape route. It was 1967, the fall after the Summer of Love, when Brenda lit out for Austin to attend the University of Texas. Freed from the expectations she was born to, she thrilled to the social liberation and political tumult of the times, discovered feminism and drugs, became a hippie. Brenda took a certain pride in telling people that she flunked out three times—because “the streets were far more interesting than the classrooms.”
The adventure migrated to rural Arkansas where Brenda and a group of friends formed the Blunderosa Commune and attempted to live off the land. They lasted about five months.
“We didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing,” said Brenda about this chapter of her life. The locals would drive up to the commune fence just for the entertainment of watching the hippies bungle their daily activities. Thus humbled, the hippies moved back to town.
Brenda settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and resumed her formal education at the University of Arkansas, intent on becoming a doctor. When pregnancy intervened, Brenda accelerated her studies to graduate with a degree in nursing and life as a single mom.
Her son, Peter, has always been the precious centerpoint of her life. Those of us who knew them both could always feel the immense love and respect between them. Peter is now married to Jennifer Price, and the father of Jacob, 4, and Eli, 1. The grandchildren that Brenda adored, and with whom she had so little time, called her Sittie, an Arabic term of endearment for grandmother.
Baby Pete don’t come to my dreams no more
He left one night in a thunderstorm
Waving at me, grinning
His diapers sagging from the weight
of the rain. Falling off his piddling ass.
I stood on the porch
my arm caught between a “Come Back!”
and a “God Speed!”
I knew he couldn’t stay no more.
“Time to be moving on,” I said.
As a nurse, Brenda tended to the sick and dying in Northwest Arkansas for over three decades. Beginning in the mid-1980s, she focused on patients with HIV/AIDS, a courageous choice at a time when little was known about the disease, and hysterical talk of “the gay plague” poisoned our national discourse. But Brenda did not flinch. She was up to her elbows in bodily fluids at a time when people thought you could contract AIDS from an errant teardrop.
“I felt like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to,” she said.
Chris is shaken by an unseen hand
as he spits and sputters sounds
His mouth a bloody Babel
there is no meaning in his utterance
there is no peace in his passion
for this graceful man,
there is no grace in his leaving.
from In The Beginning We Spoke of Original Love
In addition to her professional ministry as a nurse, Brenda continued her lifelong passion: writing. Since preadolescence she’d written poetry, short stories, and plays. Together with other local poets she established the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective. Not long after that, I found myself in her world.
I came to the Ozarks from San Francisco, saddled with cultural prejudices typical of someone who had never lived anywhere but cosmopolitan cities certain of their superiority. Expecting a population of inarticulate Jed and Granny Clampetts, I was instead awestruck by a vital community of brilliant poets, especially Brenda, the woman who would become my best friend. The way these Southern and rural writers used language–the native idiom so alive, metaphors steeped in another world, the characters and evocation of place–made for a poetic milieu that left me feeling it was I who had grown up culturally deprived. It was 1993, the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective was just starting to make its voice heard in Fayetteville, and their readings at the D-Lux on Dickson Street were thrilling: I had found my poetic partner and my tribe.
Slam was new to the world and even newer to the Ozarks. In our writers groups we supported each other emotionally, as friends, and creatively, as fellow artists. Then we’d head to Uncle Gaylord’s or the Ozark Mountain Smokehouse for the next slam and hit the stage as fierce competitors. It wasn’t long before Brenda’s magnificent writing was matched by her strength as a performer.
In the current era where so much work coming out of slam feels familiar and formulaic, Brenda’s singular voice stands out stronger than ever. Her poems draw on magical realism, Southern Gothic, and some ineffable quality that is hers alone—at once ethereal and deeply rooted in all things earthy.
I was crazy once…
I could fuck the Earth just by sittin’ on it.
I could bear great and hairy children
that hid in caves until the stars came out.
I could bear them without pain or blood or
tears. They would spring forth fully formed
without need of tit…they were that strong.
They had no need of motherin’. They had
no need but one…to wait until the stars come out.
from In the Level of Life
Her physical voice was equally compelling. If honey could growl—that’d be her voice. A throaty east Texas drawl, slow and murky as the Sabine River that haunted her childhood, by turns mournful, seductive, menacing, ecstatic.
People of little imagination often underestimated her at first glance. She didn’t look or act the part of the rock star slammer. But when she stepped onto the stage and took command, there was no one in the room sexier or more powerful than Brenda Moossy.
I can hear the ‘gators wail.
The water moccasins are whisperin’.
They sliding over my thighs,
peekin’ out from under my skirts.
I am not screamin’.
My name is Sadie.
I am Sadie. I am not dead.
I am not dreamin’
I go run and jump in the water.
It ain’t no baptism.
They ain’t no Holy Spirit.
They might be speakin’ in tongues.
Them ones grab at me.
They pullin’ me under.
I hear singin’.
It ain’t no choir.
Off-stage, Brenda was a social creature. She just loved visitin’. Her home was a mecca where everyone—from long time local friends to touring poets she’d just met—would converge, simply to enjoy the company of this woman whose wisdom and authority seemed to come from some arcane mystery school. Austin slammer Hilary Thomas cherishes her time with Brenda:
“I remember drinking her turbo-charged Turkish coffee, watching carefully as she prepared her freakishly delicious popcorn with brewer’s yeast and plenty of real butter, the quality of the sunlight in her living room, how her house felt like a living creature, like a hollow tree or a space cleared among ancient roots. Brenda herself has always seemed mythic to me, somehow more alive than most people.”
As comfortable as she was to be with, Brenda also had an unassuming charisma that inspired people to pay attention when she spoke. She embodied a rare combination of compassion, deep intelligence, and a willingness to call fancified bullshit by its true name.
Brenda’s character shines through in this remembrance from Bay Area/Kenyan poet Shailja Patel:
“2000, Providence, RI: It was my first Nationals, and I was swimming in all the newness. I remember Brenda standing up in a public forum to call out the slammer/s who had graffiti-d the elevator at the university dorms. She said:
‘We need people to know that slam folks are the finest folks anywhere, and to want to welcome us to their cities and communities. If your team-mate was the one who did that shit, you need to check him. If it was you, you need to check your fuckin’ self.’ “
This is classic Brenda—fierce and fearless in defense of her beloved slam family.
Brenda and I served as Co-Chairs of the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective until I headed back to San Francisco in 1999. We ran an ongoing poetry reading and open mic, conducted poetry workshops throughout Arkansas, hosted a slam series, fielded and won slots on national slam teams. In preparation for our first West Coast tour, we produced Snake Dreams, an audiotape of our work (yes, an audiotape—that’s how far back we go). With regard to just about all things poetry, we worked–and played–as a team.
We had grand adventures on our many poetry tours—from the juicy, late-night madness of the Nuyorican, to LA gigs in air perfumed with dreams of stardom. On road-trips that seemed never to end, hallucinating with fatigue at truck stop diners on the interstate, we’d laugh and dish and deconstruct vast swaths of the universe. She always drove while I navigated, read aloud, fed her my homemade baked tofu. We never tired of each other, and I promise you there are a few joys as great as road-tripping with Brenda Moossy.
Seeking to expand her talents beyond the realm of slam, Brenda embarked on the MFA program at the University of Arkansas in the fall of 1998. Though rewarded in 1999 with both a Lilly Peter Fellowship in Fiction and a Qalam Award in Fiction, she never felt received in academe with the enthusiasm that she enjoyed in slam. She also feared that her work might suffer from the constraints of the program. Ironic, then, that when challenged to write her first sestina, Brenda crafted an amazing piece that’s as riveting on the page as it is in performance.
You can run all day on roads straight as rulers, but sleep
is the only highway for restless hearts and eyes
like yours that took in too much sunlight. Girls
weren’t meant to bare their souls to the sun’s harsh lips.
Those kisses can leave you blistered, boiled, ready
to run back into the flame. That kind of fever rolls
over a body, crushes the bones, leaves the spirit no role.
The ravaged don’t rest, not even in their sleep.
Like a pony ridden until her froth got red,
there is a raging fire or fear in your bright eyes
that recalls the breaking pen, and lips
forced to take the bit. We’ve all been that mule, girl.
from Blues for Evie
Brenda went on hiatus from the MFA program and gave her last sustained burst of creative energy to slam. When I stepped down from Executive Council of Poetry Slam, Inc., Brenda stepped up, setting her equanimous self to the task of smoothing the contentious waters of slam. She was member of the rollicking SlamAmerica Bus Tour in 2000, and is featured in Busload of Poets, a documentary about the tour. Over the course of her career, Brenda produced many chapbooks, and her work appears in numerous anthologies including The Spoken Word Revolution, The Poetry of Arab Women, Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry, Burning Down the House, and Ozark Mosaic.
In 2001, doctors spotted something suspicious in a chest x-ray. They split open Brenda at the sternum and found not cancer but a treatable infection. It was an extremely traumatic process, physically and emotionally; recovery was agonizingly slow and painful. Several years later Brenda told me that she never felt the same after that surgery, as if it had stolen some essential part of her.
When the chest is cracked and split,
only a strand of stainless steel
can pull the bones together. Suture
wraps like laces through the eyes of a shoe
into a twisted embrace. Bone
will approximate bone. Fingers
of spidery cells span the divide of space,
find each other, latch on and hold fast.
from Cracking the Chest
Despite this ordeal, Brenda rallied. She did one final solo tour of the East Coast in 2002, connected with old friends, made new ones, and consolidated her reputation as one of the great performance poets of our time.
Then, in October of 2007, just three days after she stubbed out her last cigarette, Brenda was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors opened her chest a second time only to discover that the disease had spread beyond the reach of the scalpel. Throughout the following year, Brenda endured numerous trials of experimental chemo, and weeks of radiation therapy. She lived longer than the doctors expected, but by December 2008 it was time for hospice care.
A huge support network of loving friends, many of whom she’d known for decades, made sure that she was never alone and always very well cared for. Trisha Shaver, a friend from their days on the Blunderosa commune, reentered Brenda’s life, and moved in to take care of her full-time for those last six months. In an elegant twist of fate, it happens that Trisha is the sister of Lonnie McGuire, the great love of Brenda’s life. He vanished in the early 1980’s, and became the inspiration for Anaconda.
I have opened like a bowl for you
I have split my skin like a wet, ripe husk
sweet warm pulp, blood purple
I have moved aside,
leaving you room to crawl
I have said, in jagged whisper,
“Do you love me?”
My words falling down my mouth
like pebbles down a well.
Thanks to the generosity of one member of the slam family, I was able to fly out to Fayetteville in January. I arrived on my birthday; the only gift that mattered was getting to be with Brenda. She was on a lot of pain medication and only intermittently coherent, but we made the most of her lucid moments. The next day a dozen of her closest women friends gathered in honor of her 60th birthday. We each spoke about our relationship with Brenda and why we love her so. Brenda worked hard to take it all in.
There is no one to hold me. My skin on fire,
singing by the river, by the crouched Angels.
I dig barehanded a cup from soil to cradle
my body. The crickets sing their love songs.
The crunch and scrape of snails moving
through sand sounds like a whisper of hope.
Use fingers and the deliberate
trace of tongue, divide the sternum
breast from breast. Peel back skin,
expose the bony nest. Move back the shell
of rib, kiss the beating heart.
from Beating Heart
The last time I saw Brenda was January 19th. I was waiting for my ride to the airport, to go home. We cried and hugged long and hard, both sensing that it would be the last time we’d see each other in this incarnation. When it came time, I left her with a line paraphrased from a Dylan song:
Goodbye is too strong a word, love
So I’ll just say fare thee well.
During the last few days of her life Brenda drifted in and out of consciousness. Much of what she said made no sense, but one day, after literally waltzing to the bathroom in the arms of an old friend, oxygen tubes trailing behind her, she delivered the last line to the poem that was her life:
“This disease doesn’t taste so bad after all.”
Brenda died on the morning of January 29, at her home in Fayetteville, in the midst of the worst ice storm in Arkansas history. Trisha and two other friends were with her as she released her last breath. Outside, the tree branches that had been snapping like gunfire all night, just for a moment, fell silent.
Brenda has gone gently. To be with the unruly angels that are such a presence in her poems.
We should all be naked for this. We should
all stand with flesh shining bright as the moon,
fierce as the sword in the water.
We should all be naked. For this, we should run
quivering skin goose-bumped hair on-end like rabid dogs,
feet crushing grass, soles slapping stone.
We should all be naked for this. Gates of the prisons
opened. A flood of spirit pulsing through the streets
like blood loosed from the heart.
We should all be naked unbound angels,
no robes to tangle in rapid feet,
in criss-crossed legs. Our wings flapping
furiously feverishly driven to the Sun.
For this, we should all be naked and without restraint.
Racing, hearts bursting, a shower of sparks to rival stars
Racing, mouths open, laughter pouring out like water.
Racing Running to the outskirts of Beulah Land.
Brenda visited me in a dream the night after she died. Strolling slowly, arm in arm, down an Arkansas dirt road, we shared a moment of peace.
Fare thee well, Brenda.
All my love,
Brenda in bliss.
Special thanks to Shailja Patel and Eve Stern for their keen editorial support.
Thanks also to Kevin Kinder for some of the quotes I pulled for this piece. He interviewed Brenda for his article in the Northwest Arkansas Times on March 9, 2008