MTPR

Jenny Montgomery And Gwendolyn Brooks Reflect On The Comfort Of Ignorance

Feb 23, 2017

"I grew up in Tacoma, a port city on Puget Sound," writes poet, essayist and co-owner of Missoula's Montgomery Distillery, Jenny Montgomery. "We lived on Puyallup Indian reservation land, but there were few signs that this was so. Our neighborhood overlooked ancient salmon fishing waters but was completely inhabited by whites.  There were no Native kids among us at school yet our mascot was the Warrior—a childlike, cartoon brave who wore a single feather on his head and a floppy loincloth.

Tacoma in the 1970s was choked with smog, organized crime, and urban decay. Pacific Avenue resembled Beirut.  Ornate, colonial buildings advertised dancing girls or stood vacant with blown out windows.  The bay was slick and heavy with petroleum, PCBs, and arsenic-laden slag.  

By high school, my friends and I were polluted, too.  We escaped into clouds of pot smoke and psychedelic rock.  We swung from vines in the dark ravines that cut through rich neighborhoods.  We cruised the industrial waterfront in a rusty Oldsmobile and parked overlooking the pulp mills, which broke down the big coastal trees in the stink of sulfite. Across the water, my house lay hidden behind cedars.

One night, a soft language began to stream down through rain clouds into the tops of our heads. A strange telepathy ricocheted inside the car. The fierce, ancient truth of the Salish Sea, the cliffs, the silhouette of Mount Tahoma, thundered beneath our sprawling, toxic settlement, just over one hundred years old.  Its transmission was sorrowful. We were the poison to their old ways—yet the land was still speaking.  And it was as if no one had ever told us its story before.

All of us left Tacoma in years to come."

Montgomery pairs her reflection with a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, who in 1950 became the first black author to win a Pulitzer Prize. In the poem “Truth,” Brooks enacts a confrontation with historical truth, a transition from the shelter of ignorance to the pain of awareness. Using the sun as a metaphor, the poet asks the reader if, when truth finds us or is revealed to us, will we welcome it, or will we sink back into the comfort of ignorance?

And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 8/17/16 and 2/22/17. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)