This is not a small voice
you hear this is a large
voice coming out of these cities.
This is the voice of LaTanya.
Kadesha. Shaniqua. This
is the voice of Antoine.
Running over waters
navigating the hallways
of our schools spilling out
on the corners of our cities and
no epitaphs spill out of their river mouths.
This is not a small love
you hear this is a large
love, a passion for kissing learning
on its face.
This is a love that crowns the feet with hands
that nourishes, conceives, feels the water sails
mends the children,
folds them inside our history where they
toast more than the flesh
where they suck the bones of the alphabet
and spit out closed vowels.
This is a love colored with iron and lace.
This is a love initialed Black Genius.
This is not a small voice
Long ago I met a beautiful boy Together we slept in my mother's womb Now the street of our fathers rises to eat him :: Everything black is forbidden in Eden In my arms my brother sleeps, teeth pearls I give away the night so he can have this slumber :: I give away the man who made me white I give away the man who freed my mother I pry apart my skull my scalp unfurls :: I nestle him gray inside my brain, my brother sleeps and dreams of genes mauve lips fast against spine he breathes. The sky :: bends into my eyes as they search for his skin Helicopter blades invade our peace::: Where is that Black Where is it Where :: Blades slice, whine pound the cupolas I slide him down and out the small of my vertebrae He scurries down the bone and to the ocean :: navigates home in a boat carved of gommier When he reaches our island everyone is relieved though they have not forgotten me, belsé :: Where is your sister, eh? Whey? Koté belsé yé? Whey? Koté li yé Koté li yé To the sand To the stars on the sea Koté li yé Koté li yé To the one-celled egun To the torpid moon Koté li yé Koté li yé :: There::: Koté li yé drapes across a baton; glows electric in shine of taser; pumped dry with glass bottle; :: There::: Koté li yé vagina gape into the night; neck dangle taut with plastic bags and poorly knotted ropes; :: There::: Koté li yé belsé Koté? ::: I burn my skin shines blacker, lacquer ::: non-mwen sé flambó ashes tremble in the moonlight ::: sans humanité my smoking bones fume the future ::: pa bwè afwéchi pou lafiyèv dòt moun
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
let ruin end here
let him find honey
where there was once a slaughter
let him enter the lion’s cage
& find a field of lilacs
let this be the healing
& if not let it be
Dubbed undetectable, I can’t kill
The people you touch, and I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want to.
I want them dying, and I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
If I can’t leave you
Dead, I’ll have
You vexed. Look. Look
Again: show me the color
Of your flowers now.
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling
you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.
that feeling. that’s black.
think: once, a white girl
was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.
later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy
of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?
always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.
I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.
after Yusef Komunyakaa
My black face fades,
hiding inside black smoke.
I knew they'd use it,
dammit: tear gas.
I'm grown. I'm fresh.
Their clouded assumption eyes me
like a runaway, guilty as night,
chasing morning. I run
this way—the street lets me go.
I turn that way—I'm inside
the back of a police van
again, depending on my attitude
to be the difference.
I run down the signs
half-expecting to find
my name protesting in ink.
I touch the name Freddie Gray;
I see the beat cop's worn eyes.
Names stretch across the people’s banner
but when they walk away
the names fall from our lips.
Paparazzi flash. Call it riot.
The ground. A body on the ground.
A white cop’s image hovers
over us, then his blank gaze
looks through mine. I’m a broken window.
He’s raised his right arm
a gun in his hand. In the black smoke
a drone tracking targets:
No, a crow gasping for air.
You, selling roses out of a silver grocery cart
You, in the park, feeding the pigeons
You cheering for the bees
You with cats in your voice in the morning, feeding cats
You protecting the river You are who I love
delivering babies, nursing the sick
You with henna on your feet and a gold star in your nose
You taking your medicine, reading the magazines
You looking into the faces of young people as they pass, smiling and saying, Alright! which, they know it, means I see you, Family. I love you. Keep on.
You dancing in the kitchen, on the sidewalk, in the subway waiting for the train because Stevie Wonder, Héctor Lavoe, La Lupe
You stirring the pot of beans, you, washing your father’s feet
You are who I love, you
reciting Darwish, then June
Feeding your heart, teaching your parents how to do The Dougie, counting to 10, reading your patients’ charts
You are who I love, changing policies, standing in line for water, stocking the food pantries, making a meal
You are who I love, writing letters, calling the senators, you who, with the seconds of your body (with your time here), arrive on buses, on trains, in cars, by foot to stand in the January streets against the cool and brutal offices, saying: YOUR CRUELTY DOES NOT SPEAK FOR ME
You are who I love, you struggling to see
You struggling to love or find a question
You better than me, you kinder and so blistering with anger, you are who I love, standing in the wind, salvaging the umbrellas, graduating from school, wearing holes in your shoes
You are who I love
weeping or touching the faces of the weeping
You, Violeta Parra, grateful for the alphabet, for sound, singing toward us in the dream
You carrying your brother home
You noticing the butterflies
Sharing your water, sharing your potatoes and greens
You who did and did not survive
You who cleaned the kitchens
You who built the railroad tracks and roads
You who replanted the trees, listening to the work of squirrels and birds, you are who I love
You whose blood was taken, whose hands and lives were taken, with or without your saying
Yes, I mean to give. You are who I love.
You who the borders crossed
You whose fires
You decent with rage, so in love with the earth
You writing poems alongside children
You cactus, water, sparrow, crow You, my elder
You are who I love,
summoning the courage, making the cobbler,
getting the blood drawn, sharing the difficult news, you always planting the marigolds, learning to walk wherever you are, learning to read wherever you are, you baking the bread, you come to me in dreams, you kissing the faces of your dead wherever you are, speaking to your children in your mother’s languages, tootsing the birds
You are who I love, behind the library desk, leaving who might kill you, crying with the love songs, polishing your shoes, lighting the candles, getting through the first day despite the whisperers sniping fail fail fail
You are who I love, you who beat and did not beat the odds, you who knows that any good thing you have is the result of someone else’s sacrifice, work, you who fights for reparations
You are who I love, you who stands at the courthouse with the sign that reads NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE
You are who I love, singing Leonard Cohen to the snow, you with glitter on your face, wearing a kilt and violet lipstick
You are who I love, sighing in your sleep
You, playing drums in the procession, you feeding the chickens and humming as you hem the skirt, you sharpening the pencil, you writing the poem about the loneliness of the astronaut
You wanting to listen, you trying to be so still
You are who I love, mothering the dogs, standing with horses
You in brightness and in darkness, throwing your head back as you laugh, kissing your hand
You carrying the berbere from the mill, and the jug of oil pressed from the olives of the trees you belong to
You studying stars, you are who I love
braiding your child’s hair
You are who I love, crossing the desert and trying to cross the desert
You are who I love, working the shifts to buy books, rice, tomatoes,
bathing your children as you listen to the lecture, heating the kitchen with the oven, up early, up late
You are who I love, learning English, learning Spanish, drawing flowers on your hand with a ballpoint pen, taking the bus home
You are who I love, speaking plainly about your pain, sucking your teeth at the airport terminal television every time the politicians say something that offends your sense of decency, of thought, which is often
You are who I love, throwing your hands up in agony or disbelief, shaking your head, arguing back, out loud or inside of yourself, holding close your incredulity which, yes, too, I love I love
your working heart, how each of its gestures, tiny or big, stand beside my own agony, building a forest there
How “Fuck you” becomes a love song
You are who I love, carrying the signs, packing the lunches, with the rain on your face
You at the edges and shores, in the rooms of quiet, in the rooms of shouting, in the airport terminal, at the bus depot saying “No!” and each of us looking out from the gorgeous unlikelihood of our lives at all, finding ourselves here, witnesses to each other’s tenderness, which, this moment, is fury, is rage, which, this moment, is another way of saying: You are who I love You are who I love You and you and you are who
And here is all we’ll need: a card deck, quartets of sun people
Of the sort found in black college dormitories, some vintage
Music, indiscriminate spirits, fried chicken, some paper,
A writing utensil, and a bottomless Saturday. We should explore
The origins of a derogatory word like spade as well as the word
For feeling alone in polite company. And also the implications
Of calling someone who is not your brother or sister,
Brother or Sister. So little is known of our past, we can imagine
Damn near anything. When I say maybe slaves held Spades
Tournaments on the anti-cruise ships bound for the Colonies,
You say when our ancestors were cooped on those ships
They were not yet slaves. Our groundbreaking film should begin
With a low-lit den in the Deep South and the deep fried voice
Of somebody’s grandmother holding smoke in her mouth
As she says, “The two of Diamonds trumps the two of Spades
In my house.” And at some point someone should tell the story
Where Jesus and the devil are Spades partners traveling
The juke joints of the 1930s. We could interview my uncle Junior
And definitely your skinny cousin Mary and any black man
Sitting at a card table wearing shades. Who do you suppose
Would win if Booker T and MLK were matched against Du Bois
And Malcolm X in a game of Spades? You say don’t talk
Across the table. Pay attention to the suits being played.
The object of the game is to communicate invisibly
With your teammate. I should concentrate. Do you suppose
We are here because we are lonely in some acute diasporafied
Way? This should be explored in our film about Spades.
Because it is one of the ways I am still learning what it is
To be black, tonight I am ready to master Spades. Four players
Bid a number of books. Each team adds the bids
Of the two partners, and the total is the number of books
That team must try to win. Is that not right? This is a game
That tests the boundary between mathematics and magic,
If you ask me. A bid must be intuitive like the itchiness
Of the your upper lip before you sip strange whiskey.
My mother did not drink, which is how I knew something
Was wrong with her, but she held a dry spot at the table
When couples came to play. It’s a scene from my history,
But this probably should not be mentioned in our documentary
About Spades. Renege is akin to the word for the shame
You feel watching someone else’s humiliation. Slapping
A card down must be as dramatic as hitting the face of a drum
With your palm, not hitting the face of a drum with a drumstick.
You say there may be the sort of outrage induced
By liquor, trash talk, and poor strategy, but it will fade
The way a watermark left on a table by a cold glass fades.
I suspect winning this sort of game makes you feel godly.
I’m good and ready for who ever we’re playing
Against tonight. I am trying to imagine our enemy.
I know you are not my enemy. You say there are no enemies
In Spades. Spades is a game our enemies do not play.
in the backseat, my sons laugh & tussle,
far from Tamir’s age, adorned with his
complexion & cadence, & already warned
about toy pistols, though my rhetoric
ain’t about fear, but dislike—about
how guns have haunted me since I first gripped
a pistol; I think of Tamir, twice-blink
& confront my weeping’s inadequacy, how
some loss invents the geometry that baffles.
The Second Amendment—cold, cruel,
a constitutional violence, a ruthless
thing worrying me still, should be it predicts
the heft in my hand, arm sag, burdened by
what I bear: My bare arms collaged
with wings as if hope alone can bring
back a buried child. A child, a toy gun,
a blue shield’s rapid rapid rabid shit. This
is how misery sounds: my boys
playing in the backseat juxtaposed against
a twelve-year-old’s murder playing
in my head. My tongue cleaves to the roof
of my mouth, my right hand has forgotten.
This is the brick & mortar of the America
that murdered Tamir & may stalk the laughter
in my backseat. I am a father driving
his Black sons to school & the death
of a Black boy rides shotgun & this
could be a funeral procession, the death
a silent thing in the air, unmentioned—
because mentioning death invites taboo:
if you touch my sons the blood washed
away from the concrete must, at some
point, belong to you, & not just to you, to
the artifice of justice that is draped like a blue
g-d around your shoulders, the badge that
justifies the echo of the fired pistol; taboo:
the thing that says freedom is a murderer’s body
mangled & disrupted by my constitutional
rights come to burden, because the killer’s mind
refused the narrative of a brown child, his dignity,
his right to breathe, his actual fucking existence,
with all the crystalline brilliance I saw when
my boys first reached for me. This world best
invite more than story of the children bleeding
on crisp falls days, Tamir’s death must be more
than warning about recklessness & abandoned
justice & white terror’s ghost—& this is
why I hate it all, the protests & their counters,
the Civil Rights attorneys that stalk the bodies
of the murdered, this dance of ours that reduces
humanity to the dichotomy of the veil. We are
not permitted to articulate the reasons we might
yearn to see a man die. A mind may abandon
sanity. What if all I had stomach for was blood?
But history is no sieve & sanity is no elixir
& I am bound to be haunted by the strength
that lets Tamir’s father, mother, kinfolk resist
the temptation to turn everything they see
into a grave & make home the series of cells
that so many brothers already call their tomb.
so I count my hopes: the bumblebees
are making a comeback, one snug tight
in a purple flower I passed to get to you;
your favorite color is purple but Prince’s
was orange & we both find this hard to believe;
today the park is green, we take grass for granted
the leaves chuckle around us; behind
your head a butterfly rests on a tree; it’s been
there our whole conversation; by my old apartment
was a butterfly sanctuary where I would read
& two little girls would sit next to me; you caught
a butterfly once but didn’t know what to feed it
so you trapped it in a jar & gave it to a girl
you liked. I asked if it died. you say you like
to think it lived a long life. yes, it lived a long life.
Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.
When the pickup truck, with its side mirror,
almost took out my arm, the driver’s grin
reflected back; it was just a horror
show that was never going to happen,
don’t protest, don’t bother with the police
for my benefit, he gave me a smile—
he too was startled, redness in his face—
when I thought I was going, a short while,
to get myself killed: it wasn’t anger
when he bared his teeth, as if to caution
calm down, all good, no one died, ni[ght, neighbor]—
no sense getting all pissed, the commotion
of the past is the past; I was so dim,
he never saw me—of course, I saw him.
eenie meenie minie moe
catch a voter by her toe
if she hollers then you know
got yourself a real jane crow
* * *
one vote is an opinion
with a quiet legal force ::
a barely audible beep
in the local traffic, & just
a plashless drop of mercury
in the national thermometer.
but a collectivity of votes
/a flock of votes, a pride of votes,
a murder of votes/ can really
make some noise.
* * *
one vote begets another
if you make a habit of it.
my mother started taking me
to the polls with her when i
was seven :: small, thrilled
to step in the booth, pull
the drab curtain hush-shut
behind us, & flip the levers
beside each name she pointed
to, the Xs clicking into view.
there, she called the shots.
* * *
rich gal, poor gal
hired girl, thief
vote your grief
* * *
one vote’s as good as another
:: still, in 1913, illinois’s gentle
suffragists, hearing southern
women would resent spotting
mrs. ida b. wells-barnett amidst
whites marchers, gently kicked
their sister to the curb. but when
the march kicked off, ida got
right into formation, as planned.
the tribune’s photo showed
her present & accounted for.
* * *
one vote can be hard to keep
an eye on :: but several /a
colony of votes/ can’t scuttle
away unnoticed so easily. my
mother, veteran registrar for
our majority black election
district, once found—after
much searching—two bags
of ballots /a litter of votes/
stuffed in a janitorial closet.
* * *
* * *
one vote was all fannie lou
hamer wanted. in 1962, when
her constitutional right was
over forty years old, she tried
to register. all she got for her
trouble was literacy tested, poll
taxed, fired, evicted, & shot
at. a year of grassroots activism
nearly planted her mississippi
freedom democratic party
in the national convention.
* * *
one vote per eligible voter
was all stacy abrams needed.
she nearly won the georgia
governor’s race in 2018 :: lost by
50,000 /an unkindness of votes/
to the man whose job was
maintaining the voter rolls.
days later, she rolled out plans
for getting voters a fair fight.
it’s been two years—& counting.
. As in what if
the shadow is gold
en? Breathe. As in
that. As in first
person singular. Homonym
:. As in subject. As
in centeroftheworld as in
mundane. The opposite of spectacle
spectacular. This is just us
gold in shadows
. You have the
right to breathe and remain
But there never was a black male hysteria
Breaking & entering wearing glee & sadness
And the light grazing my teeth with my lighter
To the night with the flame like a blade cutting
Me slack along the corridors with doors of offices
Orifices vomiting tears & fire with my two tongues
Loose & shooing under a high-top of language
In a layer of mischief so traumatized trauma
Delighted me beneath the tremendous
Stupendous horrendous undiscovered stars
Burning where I didn’t know how to live
My friends were all the wounded people
The black girls who held their own hands
Even the white boys who grew into assassins
“The light range was so narrow if you exposed film
for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would
be rendered invisible except for the whites of his
eyes and teeth. It was only when Kodak’s two biggest
clients—the confectionary and furniture industries—
complained that dark chocolate and dark furniture
were losing out that it came up with a solution.”
—Broomberg and Chanarin
“When a contradiction is impossible to resolve
except by a lie, then we know it is really a door.”
I keep referring to the cold, as if that were the point.
Fact. Not point.
Forty-below was a good day. “In short, fine weather,” you wrote once, before cutting out blocks of ice and fashioning another igloo for the whole crew each night.
But it isn’t the point, that it was cold, is it?
How many days before arriving did you sit on the deck in that chair, staring out to sea, wearing a coarse blue shirt, the lost, well-mannered rhetoric of your day spiraling beneath a blue hat—concertina (at your ankle) outside the placid frame?
Thank you, whoever you are, for standing behind the camera and thinking “Matthew Henson” and “photograph” at the same time.
The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually—strikingly—blue. Endless blueness. White is blue. An ocean wave freezes in place. Blue. Whole glaciers, large as Ohio, floating masses of static water. All of them pale frosted azuls. It makes me wonder—yet again—was there ever such a thing as whiteness? I am beginning to grow suspicious. An open window.
I am blue.
I am a frozen blue ocean.
I am a wave struck cold in midair.
The wave is nude beneath her blue dress.
Her skin is blue.
To arrive in a place.
And this place in which you have arrived finally: a place you have always dreamt of arriving. Perhaps you have tried—for eighteen years—to get there, dreaming of landscapes, people, food. Always repulsed by your effort, unable to attain the trophy.
And then finally somehow you arrive one day and are immediately stunned because you realize more than anything, it isn’t the landscape, food, the people. That thing which most astonishes you is the light, the way the air appears, how the sunlight hovers just before your eyes.
And you—then—wanting nothing more than to spend the day indoors watching the room. The vast ocean always nothing more than an open window. So you stay inside and choose to watch the same wall turn fifty reds, then later: slow, countless variations of blue. Blues you have never seen. There is a black beam overhead on the ceiling. Without it, the ability to see such light would disappear. The light is toying with you, and you like it. All of this because the darkness is now always overhead. That. That is what arriving means.
I want to say the same thing in a variety of different ways. Or I want to say many different things, but merely one way.
Perhaps there is only one word after all. Beneath all languages, beneath all other words: only one. Perhaps whenever we speak we are repeating it. All day long, the same single word over and over again.
Choose something dark. Choose a dark line to hang above you. If you want to see what light can do, always choose the dark.
Out on the ice, the light can blind you. The annals laced with men who set out without the protection of darkness. All finished blind.
Blackbirds, black bowhead whales, the raven, the night sky, the body inside, blue ink, pencil lead, chocolate, marzipan. Like us.
All water is color. But what does that have to do with you and me, Matthew?
Maybe life is just this: walking with each other from one dark room to another. And looking.
Sometimes the paintings come to life. Sometimes you just love the word pewter. Sometimes the ocean waves at you. Sometimes there are goldfish in a jar. A bowl of oranges. Sometimes a woman steps down out of a frame and walks toward you. Sometimes she discards the white scarf, which covers her, and reveals her real body. Sometimes she leaves, moments later, covered in a striped jacket and leather hat.
Our lady of the dressing table.
Our lady of the rainy day.
Our lady of palm leaves, periwinkle, calla lilies.
Our lady of acanthus.
A garden redone three times.
Sometimes someone you love just falls through. Gone. The blue massive ridges of pressure shift, float away, move. Sometimes the ice breaks open. That’s it. Sledge, dogs and all.
I fell through once. I’d grown cold, so I stood up and walked to get my coat. I was told it was hanging on the far wall of a very dark room. Because it was dark, I could see, really see—for the first time—how a particular gold thread sparkled on the collar. I reached out my hand. But before the wall, there was a large hole where stairs were being built, which I could not see. I walked into air and landed on my head. Underground.
Everything then turned a vivid black.
I wonder, Matthew, when you were out on the ice for years, trying very hard not to fall through, I wonder whether—like me—you ever thought of the same woman over and over again, whether you ever imagined her draped in a loose-fitting emerald robe, seated in a pink velvet chair, engulfed by a black so bright it was luminous?
Sometimes I lie here in bed before the fire, unable to move—this cane, this hideous cane, this glorious cane, cutting cane—and imagine that one particular curl falling forward toward her forehead. I imagine the same curl at this angle, then that. A recurring dream. When my bed becomes a vast field of frozen ice the color of indigo, and I cannot move, I begin to see her face. Each strand of her hair becomes a radiant small flame, twisting and burning so quietly. Then I look at your picture, you out on the ice, and I wonder if you ever feel like that, Matthew?
Like a woman, faceless and flung over
a desk, at rest or in tears, exquisite
quickly drawn ruffles about your shoulder,
halos of wide banana leaves
hovering just above your head?
Were there images you could not fling
from your mind? Events that clung
to you, coated you, repeating
themselves in a series: movements
or instruments in a symphony?
Objects that would not let you go:
an avocado tree; a certain street
at night where someone exceptionally kind
once took your arm as the two of you walked
along a wet sidewalk; trying
to remember the light on that certain gait:
your mother twirling a parasol, also walking
through a grove of olive trees?
Did you begin to find comfort
in the serial, the inexplicable and constant
reappearance of things, people, sensations,
every moment symphonically realized
and reentered. The way the days begin
to rhyme. Every moment
walking into the room again.
Sledge after sledge.
I fell through, into a hole in the floor. I landed far below, on my head. Sometimes I still forget my name. Sometimes I forget yours. Sometimes I forget how to spell the. Regularly I am unable to remember Adam Clayton Powell. Or how to conjugate exist. Sometimes I lie in bed and cannot feel my legs. It’s like something quietly gnawed them off while I was in the kitchen making tea. From the knees down: this odd sensation, not nothing, but something, just not legs. If ice were not cold perhaps. Or the memory of a leg. I cannot feel my legs, but I can feel their memory.
In conversation, my face goes numb. It starts at my mouth and spreads out. When I am quiet it recedes. Why is numbness ascribed the color blue? It’s not. It’s red.
By the end of the day, my left hand has disappeared from the end of my arm. I ignore it. Hold my pen. Smile at you. What year is it, darling? I once lived where? With whom? Where is she now? What was her name?
I remember nurses. Their faces. Someone very, very kind—a woman—began to tape a pen inside my hand. I remember being suspended in a harness. Being lowered down into a warm blue pool. All the other patients there were very old. Here is how we all learned to walk properly again. Underwater. Blue.
Once I fell through—into the dark.
Braces and casts.
Being told not to write.
Being told not to read.
Forgetting someone I once promised I would never forget.
Remembering her finally, one year, then forgetting her again, the next day.
Remembering not remembering I’d forgotten.
Forgetting them completely.
When I look at photographs of Matisse, unable to walk, drawing on the wall from the bed, his charcoal tied to the end of a very long pole, I stop breathing.
Him, I think. Yes. I could marry him.
I could slip into his bed.
We could talk about real things.
I could be his dark line hovering above.
We could watch the light turning the room every color.
for my grandfather We don’t have heirlooms. Haven’t owned things long enough. We’re hoarding us in our stories. Like October 26—the Oklahoma Quick Stop gas at 90¢ and, in 158 more days, Passion of the Christ in a wildlife refuge with Rabbits foot and Black Capped birds—when Edgar Whetstone shoots himself. Like August 4, 1919. Like Ada Willis births the boy conceived with Boy gone somewhere. Like her prayers and circa 10 years past and Mr. Charlie saying, Edgar reads (you call that clean?) but please, girl, coloreds don’t become doctors. Like Edgar trashed his books. Like served, discharged. Like funeral director close to doctor as it got. Formaldehyde wrecked him like Time to get up out the South Detroit inspect dynamics burn a house down torch the county jail. Like now, October. Like I found, searching the internet, one shot of the asylum’s blurry hall empty but for an organ’s pipes. I saw Edgar deluding hymns rousing the two of us in Rock of Ages followed by Philippians 1:21—to die is gain. No way to prove the claim, you die in dream, you die for real. Our family still hanged from trees. Like if they ever fall, no one will hear it someday for a while.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
On balconies, sunlight. On poplars, sunlight on our lips.
Today no one is shooting.
A girl cuts her hair with imaginary scissors—
the scissors in sunlight, her hair in sunlight.
Another girl steals a pair of shoes from a sleeping soldier, skewered with light.
As soldier wakes and looks at us looking at them
what do they see?
Tonight they shot fifty women at Lerna St.,
I sit down to write and tell you what I know:
a child learns the world by putting it in her mouth,
a girl becomes a woman and a woman, earth.
Body, they blame you for all things and they
seek in the body what does not live in the body.
On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.
The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman's fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it.
The man doesn't acknowledge you as you sit down because the man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do. For him, you imagine, it is more like breath than wonder; he has had to think about it so much you wouldn't call it thought.
When another passenger leaves his seat and the standing woman sits, you glance over at the man. He is gazing out the window into what looks like darkness.
You sit next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, waiting room, anywhere he could be forsaken. You put your body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within.
You don't speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you.
Where he goes the space follows him. If the man left his seat before Union Station you would simply be a person in a seat on the train. You would cease to struggle against the unoccupied seat when where why the space won't lose its meaning.
You imagine if the man spoke to you he would say, it's okay, I'm okay, you don't need to sit here. You don't need to sit and you sit and look past him into the darkness the train is moving through. A tunnel.
All the while the darkness allows you to look at him. Does he feel you looking at him? You suspect so. What does suspicion mean? What does suspicion do?
The soft gray-green of your cotton coat touches the sleeve of him. You are shoulder to shoulder though standing you could feel shadowed. You sit to repair whom who? You erase that thought. And it might be too late for that.
It might forever be too late or too early. The train moves too fast for your eyes to adjust to anything beyond the man, the window, the tiled tunnel, its slick darkness. Occasionally, a white light flickers by like a displaced sound.
From across the aisle tracks room harbor world a woman asks a man in the rows ahead if he would mind switching seats. She wishes to sit with her daughter or son. You hear but you don't hear. You can't see.
It's then the man next to you turns to you. And as if from inside your own head you agree that if anyone asks you to move, you'll tell them we are traveling as a family.
Dedicated to the Poet Agostinho Neto,
President of The People’s Republic of Angola: 1976
I will no longer lightly walk behind
a one of you who fear me:
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavements anymore
and this is dedicated in particular
to those who hear my footsteps
or the insubstantial rattling of my grocery
then turn around
and hurry on
away from this impressive terror I must be:
I plan to blossom bloody on an afternoon
surrounded by my comrades singing
terrible revenge in merciless
I have watched a blind man studying his face.
I have set the table in the evening and sat down
to eat the news.
I have gone to sleep.
There is no one to forgive me.
The dead do not give a damn.
I live like a lover
who drops her dime into the phone
just as the subway shakes into the station
wasting her message
canceling the question of her call:
fulminating or forgetful but late
and always after the fact that could save or
I must become the action of my fate.
How many of my brothers and my sisters
will they kill
before I teach myself
Shall we pick a number?
South Africa for instance:
do we agree that more than ten thousand
in less than a year but that less than
five thousand slaughtered in more than six
WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH ME?
I must become a menace to my enemies.
And if I
if I ever let you slide
who should be extirpated from my universe
who should be cauterized from earth
(lawandorder jerkoffs of the first the
then let my body fail my soul
in its bedeviled lecheries
And if I
if I ever let love go
because the hatred and the whisperings
become a phantom dictate I o-
bey in lieu of impulse and realities
(the blossoming flamingos of my
wild mimosa trees)
then let love freeze me
I must become
I must become a menace to my enemies.
Childless, I am in a house on the ocean-edge
of a national park. Nights, I consider broadcast horrors. This is not
my house. I am a stranger, a newcomer. So often, too,
is the horror. Passes time. Passes time. Past time lights
up my liturgical tendencies, illumines past time, my lovelies.
Here, in this room, in this house, the light is sometimey as always.
Clouds. Wind and all. Pronounced through windows onto woods, onto lawns.
Say “Light casts its tender hieroglyphs on the mundane
and cataclysmic equally,” and fancify a nothing, go straight
for an inaccuracy that distracts and passes time.
And light comes before the hieroglyph, and (as marker)
these hieroglyphs give meager insight into the “nature” of light beyond
some minor perceptions. And what? Shall I ride the alliterative waves
of articulation and silence that fog my mouth and mind? Or just let
the words like particles roll? See where and what this accrual of syllables gets us?
It’s midday, and you are both years before the you to whom this poem
whispers, before the women with whom these syllables conspire. Lullaby, loves,
this ain’t. I have become a woman who screams softly. Maybe an over-abundance
of caution? Of caustic care? Well, I’ve seen the clips and memes, heard the murmurs
and corporate decisions meant to mark-up and mock the nature of you that’s well beyond
easy perception. In past times,
I’ve been medicated out of my self, locked under
an atmospheric feeling, the condition of which would not relent, which could will “will not”
to relent. Wheels of wheeling won’t re-
lent. Absolve your self sunken between
Breath breath breathe and the toxic dirt.
“I would have gone back,” the voice
full of shells, gravel, liquid washing
stones, back meaning lost island
or calendar, a thing rigged
with bones unbending, unfolding past
the hard symmetry of clocks,
vertebrae of thought moving now
in real time, home a word hollow
as the bone of birds—tody, cling cling,
gaulin, euphonia—“That dream was over.”
Such oneiric geometry, “The Blue Room”
built by Miles, his horn a grail from which
you sup the saudade of marine might-have-been
never-will-be, embouchure unthought,
no better than Vidia for leaving.
So we leave, skein of shadows,
silent psalms for how our scourge
was beauty, home; brightboys fleeing
the estate for another on that other
island, jolted by the freight of shame.
Mas Hall, thanks for the company
on the volte-face voyage, stingy-brim
on which we sailed, migration of monarch butterflies.
Landfall at Port of Avonmouth in a scene
from Hardy, landfall at Tilbury Dock
to step off the caravel in white gloves,
stout ties, leave to remain vagrant.
Lonely Oxonians together,
oak hatch of the Bod we’d shade,
then off to All Souls to cram
for mods, toiling in Codrington
we leaf through Thistlewood.
And so we are marked. Is it Marx
or Douglass with that beard? Bound
to become Judas-Brutus, blood
diamonds paid us in arrears to try
the line of Hopkins, Auden, Eliot, Donne.
Evensong at New Chapel to ease
the medieval weight of failure in the refrain
of white robes, one brown seraph alone:
“O hear us when we cry to Thee
for those in peril on the sea.”
’Gainst the towers most colored I feel,
dear Stuart, in these duds, our hide,
sub fusc aeternum. You grasp browning leaflets
on the stump; O betraying beauty of brown:
bankra, Barbancourt, Venetian ducats, dhalpuri,
khaki, Gauguin. Remember the strange fog a night
on Broad St. as if below Friedrich’s Wanderer?
But, as you taught, who more Wanderer than we,
the evicted on the victor’s turf, playing the past,
loss a force centripetal? All praise
to your mind a sextant, darklit as Diwali.
You bless our kin severance. How I wish
to forget your sister strapped to the sugar mill,
charged with spoiling the color scheme:
sedition. Ah, compay, even leaves of the croton
sprout from our eyes. There is no going back.
Thinking translucence you say, “Bend the stick,”
different than Lenin or United Fruit. The rank of Bombay
mangoes exceeds all migrations. The lignum vitae
insists on itself. Navel string toughens to twine
with the rhizome, portal in the ground.
—with Kara Springer’s “Repositioned Objects, I,” primer on wood.
We are marching, truly marching
Can’t you hear the sound of feet?
We are fearing no impediment
We have never known defeat.
Like Job of old we have had patience,
Like Joshua, dangerous roads we’ve trod
Like Solomon we have built out temples.
Like Abraham we’ve had faith in God.
Up the streets of wealth and commerce,
We are marching one by one
We are marching, making history,
For ourselves and those to come.
We have planted schools and churches,
We have answered duty’s call.
We have marched from slavery’s cabin
To the legislative hall.
Brethren can’t you catch the spirit?
You who are out just get in line
Because we are marching, yes we are marching
To the music of the time.
We are marching, steady marching
Bridging chasms, crossing streams
Marching up the hill of progress
Realizing our fondest dreams.
We are marching, truly marching
Can’t you hear the sound of feet?
We are fearing no impediment
We shall never know defeat.
When I get to where I’m going
I want the death of my children explained to me.
They meet over tea and potato chips.
Brown and buttermilk women,
hipped and hardened,
legs uncrossed but proper
still in their smiles;
smiles that carry a sadness in faint creases.
A sadness they will never be without.
One asks the other,
“What do they call a woman who has lost a child?”
The other sighs between sips of lukewarm tea.
There is no name for us.
“No name? But there has to be a name for us.
We must have something to call ourselves.”
Surely, history by now and all the women
who carry their babies’ ghosts on their backs,
mothers who wake up screaming,
women wide awake in their nightmares,
mothers still expected to be mothers and human,
women who stand under hot showers weeping,
mothers who wish they could drown standing up,
women who can still smell them—hear them,
the scent and symphony of their children,
deep down in the good earth.
“Surely, history has not forgotten to name us?”
No woman wants to bear
whatever could be the name for this grief.
Even if she must bear the grief for all her days,
it would be far too painful to be called by that name.
“I’ve lost two, you know.”
“I was angry at God, you know.”
“I stopped praying but only for a little while,
and then I had no choice. I had to pray again.
I had to call out to something that was no longer there.
I had to believe God knew where it was.”
“I fear death no longer. It has taken everything.
But should I be? Should I be afraid of what death has taken?
That it took and left no name?”
The other who sighs between sips of lukewarm tea
leans over and kisses the cheek of the one still with questions.
No, you don’t have to be afraid.
Death is no more scary than the lives we have lived
without our babies, bound to this grief
with no name.
looking over the plums, one by one
lifting each to his eyes and
turning it slowly, a little earth,
checking the smooth skin for pockmarks
and rot, or signs of unkind days or people,
then sliding them gently into the plastic.
whistling softly, reaching with a slim, woolen arm
into the cart, he first balanced them over the wire
before realizing the danger of bruising
and lifting them back out, cradling them
in the crook of his elbow until
something harder could take that bottom space.
I knew him from his hat, one of those
fine porkpie numbers they used to sell
on Roosevelt Road. it had lost its feather but
he had carefully folded a dollar bill
and slid it between the ribbon and the felt
and it stood at attention. he wore his money.
upright and strong, he was already to the checkout
by the time I caught up with him. I called out his name
and he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand,
looked at me quizzically for a moment before
remembering my face. he smiled. well
hello young lady
hello, so chilly today
should have worn my warm coat like you
yes so cool for August in Chicago
how are things going for you
oh he sighed and put the candy on the belt
it goes, it goes.
for Alison Saar
Please approach with care these figures in black.
Regard with care the weight they bear,
the scars that mark their hearts.
Do you think you can handle these bodies of graphite & coal dust?
This color might rub off. A drop of this red liquid
could stain your skin.
This black powder could blow you sky high.
No ordinary pigments blacken our blues.
Would you mop the floor with this bucket of blood?
Would you rinse your soiled laundry in this basin of tears?
Would you suckle hot milk from this cracked vessel?
Would you be baptized in this fountain of funky sweat?
Please approach with care
these bodies still waiting to be touched.
We invite you to come closer.
We permit you to touch & be touched.
We hope you will engage with care.