On Learning to Read

Published in Parkett, on Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Parkett, Nr. 20, 1989

You ask me whether you should send books. Dear friend, I beg you - don't. I have no wish to be influenced, encouraged, or inspired any more. My heart surges wildly enough without any outside influence. What I need is a lullaby.

J.M. Goethe

How black is Christ? Can you see into the darknesses? Each child has a wound and a story, once scarlet letter, the dyslexic fear of death (HTAED) you hope to find in Newman's Stations of the Cross. As art-as emblem. As a way to see the sinews in an arm as the outstretched lines of traffic on Bruckner Boulevard. Is this Socratic training ground, a Beuysian School of Athens? Antonio Gramsci as desert father, searching the Inner Mountains for his cast-off exo-skeleton? Ideas that are the blood of our making.

The smell of flesh that makes us think and feel. That panadería off Courtland Street as something larger. I mean in the spirit of the breath held in, the politicization of peace. But the neighborhood churches, the commuity centers, have been ransacked, soaked in gasoline, and bonfired, for money, the church of the world, the self, that monstrous bug of K's, insectivore with rotten apple seeding in his back, thrust in by a hostile parent. And what of the state of nature which surrounds this territorial abyss, the world of love, frustration? What is history without an understanding? What is the implication of a watercolored sore?

The saint fears the dangerously empty power of words. Friere, Flaubert, Fontaine-the kids - are closer to animals and stones and cries of ecstasy and sticky hair. Howard beach, the tarfoot glossy ibis of Jamaica Bay, the sunken submarines and rats of Hameln town. Poe is the psyche of the homesless of the Northern Bronx at night. The devil tempts for no reasobn. We answer with rebuilding, then, in the words of the Third Good Friday: “ I thirst.” And this engenders nightmares, and the Eskimo shaman says “ Don't run from shadows. Confront the man. He'll dispappear.” Take apart the bindings of Braudel, Baudelaire, chew the individual words like chips of oak, gouache on them, scratch across them, draw out the dream on them, rewritten, sprinkle the ashes and the dust, the birth of some insane imagination. And then the dream will be the walls of trumped-up, Biblical cities crumbling down, the Niemandsland and moats a plague of flowerings, and all these boys and girls, now almost men and women, can cross over to the other side, and read.

William Allen is a poet, artist, and sometime English teacher.


In the year 20,000
people will get like giants
and I will invent a lotion to
grow hair all over my body.
I will be the leader of wolves
and command each and every
dog, so I can conquer
all of London.

Hector Marcano,
I.S. 183, Paul Robeson School, South Bronx

From a poetry workshop taught by William Allen under the auspices of teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1985.