What words can you wrap around
a dying brother, still dying, even now.
A man who has not eaten for a month
sips at water and says, even thirst is a gift.
He asks what other gifts God has given him.
I’m your gift, his daughter says from a corner.
And he smiles and rasps—
you can only unwrap a child once.
The rest is prayer and even more prayer.
You sing softly to him in a language
only the two of you speak and he
snores softly into your palm, breath and blood.
Copyright © 2018 by Chris Abani. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 31, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
Who hasn’t been tempted by the sharp edge of a knife?
An ordinary knife cutting ordinary tomatoes on
an ordinary slab of wood on an ordinary Wednesday.
The knife nicks, like a bite to the soul. A reminder
that what is contemplated is as real as the blood
sprouting from a finger. As real as a bruised eye.
Instead turn back to the meat stewing on the stove.
Scrape pulpy red flesh into the heat and turn.
Say: even this is a prayer. Even this.
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Abani. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 24, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.
I set you free that night, father. When you came back in that yellow Volkswagen, in that dream. I made a boat of honor for you. Woven of poems and words and not words. I set it on the ocean. Father Obuna said to me, a gift is freely given and a gift is freely returned. It has taken me thirty years to understand this. Yemenya has your heart now. May she be merciful. May she love you. The wound bleeds no more. Which is to say, what I have desired is like salt left out all night and gone. This is not a lamentation, damn it. This is a love song. This is a love song. Like reggae—it all falls on the off beat. If there is a way, it is here. They say you cannot say this in a poem. That you cannot say, love, and mean anything. That you cannot say, soul, and approach heaven. But the sun is no fool, I tell you. It will rise for nothing else.
From Sanctificum. Copyright © 2010 by Chris Abani. Used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.
How much our hands are God’s
to be running fingers over braille cities.
We are this hand pushed through our womb.
Weeping with each other’s blood in our eyes.
I dreamed that I slept with the light on.
I was asleep in my mother’s bed because my father was out to sea
and my claim on him was to feel the frets of my death sure to come.
Sweet, small fishing rod. Ears of wind rushing through many jellied trees.
We were on this cardboard earth with its puffing volcanoes
miniature baseball players and horrible winds
scored by musician’s hands.
Stand in the strong ear of this love.
Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Gambito. Used with permission of the author.
Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.
I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge.
I ready myself once again
for morning and mortify.
Stacking poetry and bills in a knapsack;
I bundle up hope (it’s brutal out there).
For a moment, I stand with ghosts
and the framed ancestors surrounding me.
I call out, hoping she can hear me
over the day-breaking sirens—
hoping she’s not far away,
or right down the street,
praying over another dead black boy.
How will we make it through this, Ms. Brooks?
When she held a body,
she saw much worse than this.
I know she was earshot and fingertip close to oppression.
She saw how hateful hate could be.
She raised babies, taught Stone Rangers,
grew a natural and wrote around critics.
She won a Pulitzer in the dark.
She justified our kitchenette dreams,
and held on.
She held on to all of us.
Hold On, she whispers.
Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—
a rebel rouser and rude.
They want me to like it, or at least pretend,
so the pretty veils that blanket who we really are—
this complicated history, can stay pretty and veiled
like some desert belly dancer
who must be seen but not heard.
We are a world of lesions.
Human has become hindrance.
We must be stamped and have papers,
and still, it’s not enough.
Ignorance has become powerful.
The dice that rolls our futures is platinum
but hollow inside.
Did you see that, Ms. Brooks?
Do you see what we’ve become?
They are skinning our histories,
deporting our roots,
detonating our very right to tell the truth.
We are one step closer to annihilation.
Hold On, she says, two million light years away.
Hold On everybody.
Hold On because the poets are still alive—and writing.
Hold On to the last of the disappearing bees
and that Great Barrier Reef.
Hold On to the one sitting next to you,
not masked behind some keyboard.
The one right next to you.
The ones who live and love right next to you.
Hold On to them.
And when we bury another grandmother,
or another black boy;
when we stand in front of a pipeline,
pour another glass of dirty drinking water
and put it on the dining room table,
next to the kreplach, bratwurst, tamales, collards, and dumplings
that our foremothers and fathers—immigrants,
brought with them so we all knew that we came from somewhere;
somewhere that mattered.
When we kneel on the rubbled mosques,
sit in massacred prayer circles,
Holding On is what gets us through.
We must remember who we are.
We are worth fighting for.
We’ve seen beauty.
We’ve birthed babies who’ve only known a black President.
We’ve tasted empathy and paid it forward.
We’ve Go-Funded from wrong to right.
We’ve marched and made love.
We haven’t forgotten—even if they have—Karma is keeping watch.
Hold On everybody.
Even if all you have left
is that middle finger around your God-given right
to be free, to be heard, to be loved,
and remembered…Hold On,
Copyright © 2017 by Parneshia Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.