Crips, Bloods, and butterflies. A sunflower somehow planted in the alley. Its broken neck. Maybe memory is all the home you get. And rage, where you first learn how fragile the axis upon which everything tilts. But to say you’ve come to terms with a city that’s never loved you might be overstating things a bit. All you know is there was once a walk-up where now sits a lot, vacant, and rats in deep grass hide themselves from the day. That one apartment fire set back in ’76—one the streets called arson to collect a claim— could not do, ultimately, what the city itself did, left to its own dank devices, some sixteen years later. Rebellions, said some. Riots, said the rest. In any case, flames; and the home you knew, ash. It’s not an actual memory, but you remember it still: a rust- bottomed Datsun handed down, then stolen. Stripped, recovered, and built back from bolts. Driving away in May. 1992. What’s left of that life quivers in the rearview—the world on fire, and half your head with it.
Days are unusual. The owl sends out 5 zeroes from the pines plus one small silver nothing. Where do they float? Maybe out to sea, where jellyfish are aging left & right. They have some nerve. Today, no new wars, probably. No big button. The owl could be your scholar of trapped light or Walter Benjamin who writes a storm blows in from paradise. Thinking through these things each week, you cross the bridge: gold coils, fog, feelings… syllables also can grow younger like those jellyfish. You bring your quilt of questions in the car. At work, you’ll have to be patient at the risky enterprise of talking to other people; so little progress in this since the Pleistocene. Mostly, though, you’re calm when traveling: silver nothing, moving right & left; day releasing the caged stars; one thought mixed with no-thought, packed with light… for MK
When I tell it, the first time I saw hail, I say it was in a desert and knocked a man unconscious then drove a woman into my arms because she thought the end was near but I assured her this wasn’t the case. When he tells it, he smiles, says the first winter after their exodus was the coldest. Rare snow came down, and his mother, who knew what the fluff was but until then had never seen it, woke him and said, Look outside, what do you see? She called his name twice. It was dark. Snow fell a paragraph to sum up decades of heat. He had no answer. She said, this is flour from heaven. When he tells it, he’s an old man returning to his mother.
My whole life I have obeyed it— its every hunting. I move beneath it as a jaguar moves, in the dark- liquid blading of shoulder. The opened-gold field and glide of the hand, light-fruited, and scythe-lit. I have come to this god-made place— Teotlachco, the ball court— because the light called: lightwards! and dwells here, Lamp-land. We touch the ball of light to one another—split bodies stroked bright— desire-knocked. Light reshapes my lover’s elbow, a brass whistle. I put my mouth there—mercy-luxed, and come, we both, to light. It streams me. A rush of scorpions— fast-light. A lash of breath— god-maker. Light horizons her hip—springs an ocelot cut of chalcedony and magnetite. Hip, limestone and cliffed, slopes like light into her thigh—light-box, skin-bound. Wind shakes the calabash, disrupts the light to ripple—light-struck, then scatter. This is the war I was born toward, her skin, its lake-glint. I desire—I thirst— to be filled—light-well. The light throbs everything, and songs against her body, girdling the knee bone. Our bodies—light-harnessed, light-thrashed. The bruising: bilirubin bloom, violet. A work of all good yokes—blood-light— to make us think the pain is ours to keep, light-trapped, lanterned. I asked for it. I own it— lightmonger. I am light now, or on the side of light— light-head, light-trophied. Light-wracked and light-gone. Still, the sweet maize—an eruption of light, or its feast, from the stalk of my lover’s throat. And I, light-eater, light-loving.
Words are hoops Through which to leap upon meanings, Which are horses’ backs, Bare, moving.
I sing the will to love: the will that carves the will to live, the will that saps the will to hurt, the will that kills the will to die; the will that made and keeps you warm, the will that points your eyes ahead, the will that makes you give, not get, a give and get that tell us what you are: how much a god, how much a human. I call on you to live the will to love.
Here, where I’m dying, in a white house by a blue harbor. —Maxim Bakhdanovich Come in, Maxim!... This is Minsk choked under a pillow of clouds. There’s you: a statue in a heavy coat. Here all monuments wear coats not wool, but linden bark coats with bee fur collars. In their pockets monuments keep belts. And under collars monuments have necks. In winter shadows insulate the walls. Windows and cracks are plucked with shadows. In museums on display are coats and nooses. And water is pickle-juice. Come in, Maxim, apartment blocks are wrapped in ammunition staircases, and window-medals sparkle through the night. Every building here is a kind of bust, an elevator ascends like vomit. Of furniture there is a stump. Come in, Maxim, it’s nothing like lie dying by a harbor. Take a sit on a stump. Don’t cast a shadow. Keep the coat on.
Poem for Aretha Franklin when she opens her mouth our world swells like dawn on the pond when the sun licks the water & the jay garbles, the whole quiet thing coming into tune, the gnats, frogs, the dandelion pollen, the pebbles & leaves & the whole world of us sitting at the throat of the jay dancing in the throat of the jay all of us on the lip of the jay singing doowop, doowop, do.
First, above all, I live forever. And thereafter redecorate paradise in the majesty of the Roof Nightclub, DJ Lucifer, at predawn hours terrifies the floorboards to give way to Apollyon’s abyss, reflecting scarred light on the wall. The mirror alive with tremors. Herons bring news of consolation. I rebuke them for my brilliance and enrich uranium in my cove across Navy Island. The hospital vanishes in the fog, so I arrange rain to restore magenta ginger lilies where my mother walked to born me. Malignant fireflies at Christmas; sorrel then sorrow, such is Kingston, there funky carols seethe asphalt with famine. Forever ends. Never a moment holds ‘still-here,’ when sand murmurs through my fingers. I number and chant down stars, ellipsoidal as fire ants with, “I think I will be killed once I die!” and again return the Super Ape, to conquer the Roof Club, rip off Apollyon’s hell fence; skin him; dance thundering subatomic dub music, until my rage yields settled coral. A million embers of eyes split from coals to see me loom out the shadows’ sunray by the turntable wearing a splash crown.
That a potholed street in the middling borough of Collingswood, New Jersey, bears the name Atlantic, after an all-consuming body of water. That all-consuming is Atlas’ curse to bear the heavens on his shoulders. That after the fall of the gods, half of the heavens is darkness. That inside the car speeding down the street, I believe I am safe from being halved. That “I” am not a white box, but a body of water. That white is a pattern of boys who expect to live long enough to become men. That some of these boys are whistling by on their bikes, and behind them, clear as a dream, welcome candles in the windows framed by blooms of vervain. That “welcome” means I thought I was not afraid of the dark. Since the jade scrubs of the cancer ward. Since the florescent grid of the factory and the vista of small bones in my father’s collar while I was interpreting for the twenty-something-year-old white citizen, “Tell your dad he can quit or I can fire him.” Grief had already burst its cocoon; it ate him like an army of moths from the inside. That brown men and women kept stitching jackets under the heavens of the machines. Welcome. That a moth is trapped in the car with me – it will die, but I do not want to practice florescence alone. Like a first language bleeding hearts call, speaking truth to power. I don’t know how they don’t know that power doesn’t care. That watching fires go out will become a pattern. That fire is everywhere, and therefore, cheap. That the hole in my foundation is all-consuming and at its bottom a frangipani tree opens its yellow hands. That POLICE ICE is printed in yellow or white on the jacket of the night. That the night walks freely among the ranks of the sun. That a body of water parted once like a red skirt then sealed over the armored horses of Egypt. That Whitney Houston is a bone blasting out the car windows. That tonight, the night after, the night after that, for as long as the distance between god and a pothole, a moth’s flight will spell, “They are coming for you.”
for Bob Marley, Bavaria, November 1980 Here is the brilliant morning on a fishing boat, this is the dream a dying man has in midwinter, the world covered in light and shadow—he dreams of St. Ann’s Bay, of the murmur of soft waves. The sea is familiar as all dawns are familiar. We walk into them knowing it is our sack of troubles that we spill open to color the sky. But here on the boat, at anchor, apart from the ordinary lull of the easy tide, there is a certain peace. He cannot know that in six months the weight of locked wool on his shoulders will be lifted, that in the soft gloom of a German chalet in deep January he will anticipate with terror his death, rewriting his theology of eternity, shadowed by the swirling clouds, the bickering sycophants, the friends who will not stop to pray, frightened as they are by the end of the crusade, the last triumphant march through the world’s plaza where the faithful Milanese, one hundred thousand strong, stand beatific under the benediction of brutalizing music. And here he already knows that his last songs convey the weight of a man sitting on the sea, staring out into the slithering metallic green and imagining his words as prayers. This is the burden a poet must carry with him to the sea, the burden for a truth unfettered by the promise of another morning. The sea is a continuous tomorrow, so unremarkable that it becomes an exquisite now: what a lofty standard of truth it is for a poem.
I can never remake the thing I have destroyed; I brushed the golden dust from the moth’s bright wing, I called down wind to shatter the cherry-blossoms, I did a terrible thing. I feared that the cup might fall, so I flung it from me; I feared that the bird might fly, so I set it free; I feared that the dam might break, so I loosed the river: May its waters cover me.
Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome Has many sonnets: so here now shall be One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home, To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome; Whose service is my special dignity, And she my loadstar while I go and come. And so because you love me, and because I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honoured name: In you not fourscore years can dim the flame Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws Of time and change and mortal life and death.
after Willie Cole Through the artist’s eyes, we catch this breath of fire, lifting water up to flight. This dead weight sinks our histories back into deep sleep, hidden away to dream of repair. Waking, we clutch at the real weight of a movable flood, catching streams that pour through metal still cold to the touch. Time takes little care over us. Current flowing, its song sighs across weft, warp, wrinkle, fold. It collars us in its minutae. Iron, pierced for steam’s escape! Ease across what was once shift, now skirt, scarf, shirt sleeve, sheet. Warm what will soon cool. Stiffen what will turn soft. Smoothe our way, and drape us in the dignity of this new day.
Kasr Avenue was where the birds lived, In a mud silo millet seeds flourished All winter long and through the dry season Laila was in my soul, also Majnoon’s madness. I was a girl growing up and you, crossing the Nile—yes a flat boat is all you had— Came in, trousers wet and flapping, Sat down with your back to me. Hunayn ibn Ishaq the great physician Thought of the heart as the oven of the body. In the Grand Hotel the waiters wear Cummerbunds, always maroon, over tunics, white I asked for a lemonade with crushed ice. Majnoon lived with his goats in the desert north of here On a mountain of sand, where the sky turns dark The color of millet burnt in a stone oven.
This is not how it begins but how you understand it. I walk many kilometers and find myself to be the same— the same moon hovering over the same, bleached sky, and when the officer calls me it is a name I do not recognize, a self I do not recognize. We are asked to kneel, or stand still, depending on which land we embroider our feet with— this one is copious with black blood or so I am told. Someone calls me by the skin I did not know I had and to this I think—language, there must be a language that contains us all that contains all of this. How to disassemble the sorrow of beginnings, how to let go, and not, how to crouch beneath other bodies how to stop breathing, how not to. Our fathers are not elders here; they are long-bearded men shoving taxi cabs and sprawled in small valet parking lots— at their sight, my body dims its light (a desiccated grape) and murmur, Igziabher Yistilign— our pride, raw-purple again. We begin like this: all of us walking in solitude walking a desert earth and unforgiving bodies. We cross lines we dare not speak of; we learn and unlearn things quickly, or intentionally slow (because, that, we can control) and give ourselves new names because these selves must be new to forget the old blue. But, sometimes, we also begin like this: on a cold, cold night memorizing escape routes kissing the foreheads of small children hiding accat in our pockets, a rosary for safekeeping. Or, married off to men thirty years our elders big house, big job, big, striking hands. Or, thinking of the mouths to feed. At times we begin in silence; water making its way into our bodies— rain, or tears, or black and red seas until we are ripe with longing.
What is a wound but a flower dying on its descent to the earth, bag of scent filled with war, forest, torches, some trouble that befell now over and done. A wound is a fire sinking into itself. The tinder serves only so long, the log holds on and still it gives up, collapses into its bed of ashes and sand. I burned my hand cooking over a low flame, that flame now alive under my skin, the smell not unpleasant, the wound beautiful as a full-blown peony. Say goodbye to disaster. Shake hands with the unknown, what becomes of us once we’ve been torn apart and returned to our future, naked and small, sewn back together scar by scar.
Sunday afternoon on a city beach. No sand, slabs of manufactured stone. I watch two blondes, maybe sisters, Inflate a raft. They use a bicycle pump. One tries to assemble two paddles, Gives up, puts them in her bag. The one on the pump removes her top. She has exerted herself into better posture. Her breasts are larger than I expected. I want to see if their tiny raft will hold them. The clouds and current move north. As they enter the water, Tony Allen warns Against the boat journey: Running away From a misery / Find yourself in a double misery. I recall photos of British tourists in Greece Frowning at refugees, Greek children in gym class while hungry. In the direction the raft floats, the sisters Paddling with their hands, a planetarium. I wonder if it houses a telescope capable Of seeing the double misery on a Greek island. Maybe its lens is too powerful. The side of their raft reads EXPLORER. Their soles are black. If you pay attention To movies, white women have grimy soles. I have seen black actresses with exquisite feet. I recall my mother checking my socks In the exam room before the doctor entered. The sisters let their ponytails drag In dubious lake water. I’m not sure I hear these lyrics: Even if They let you enter / They probably won’t let you. Even if they let you enter / The baron won’t let you, The baron won’t let you. I note their appearances, Takeoff point. Just in case. I doubt any of our thoughts converge. What is it like to be so free? To drift in water in a country you call Your own. Unprepared because you can laugh Into an official’s face. Explain, offer no apology.
Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower, And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee, Bowing my head in deep humility Before the silent thunder of thy power. Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light, As from the specter of pursuing death; Intimidated lest thy mighty breath, Windways, will sweep me into utter night. For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up— The loves which are to me of vital worth, My passion and my pleasure in the earth— And lost forever in thy magic cup! I fear, I fear my truly human heart Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
For this you’ve striven Daring, to fail: Your sky is riven Like a tearing veil. For this, you’ve wasted Wings of your youth; Divined, and tasted Bitter springs of truth. From sand unslakèd Twisted strong cords, And wandered naked Among trysted swords. There’s a word unspoken, A knot untied. Whatever is broken The earth may hide. The road was jagged Over sharp stones: Your body’s too ragged To cover your bones. The wind scatters Tears upon dust; Your soul’s in tatters Where the spears thrust. Your race is ended— See, it is run: Nothing is mended Under the sun. Straight as an arrow You fall to a sleep Not too narrow And not too deep.
It’s not the wind I hear driving south through the Catskills—it’s just bad news from the radio and then a hailstorm morphs into sunlight —look up and there’s— an archipelago of starlings trailing some clouds— But how does the wind come through you primordial hollow—unflattened double reed— so even now when bad news comes with the evening report— I can press a button on the dashboard and hear your breath implode the way wind blows through the slit windows of a church in Dilijan, then a space in my head fills with a sound that rises from red clay dust roads and slides through your raspy apricot wood— Hiss of tires, wet tarmac, stray white lines night coming like wet dissolve to pixilation— Praise to the glottal stop of every hoarse whisper, every sodden tree which speaks through your hollow carved wood— so we can hear the air flow over starlings rising and dipping as the mountains glaze the sun— so we can hear the bad news kiss the wind through your whetted reed—
Fruit from one vine tangles with another Making a mess of the intended harvest, yet the lack of calculation is welcome that accident that shifts bodies from shadows into a locus of light midday bright & caustic wounds un-healed newsreel cameras trap this old & angry man in a bespoke suit lifting white pages & refusing to read them, mumbles unwelcome threats & thanks the nation the nation kicks him out—finally defiant after years of misrule, disruption, murder and the choked voice youth terrorized he wants more blood on his hands so that when he enters his version of paradise all will be red.
You ask me again this evening at what price Does wisdom finally come in any life Or at any age & now I think I know The answer swear to me that when I tell you It is only everything you believe You will travel as far from this city as you can before The streets grow smeared & lost to the smug & promiscuous coming of the day
A second death in as many days and I succeed at being Strong and contained, until the tweet Where one young brother says I’m not scared of dying, I’m scared of breaking my mother’s heart. I am flesh Two rooms down the hall from my mother’s flesh Holding in my hands the news which is not new and today, at last, I understand How primal and intelligent her need To be done with this— Our sorrow, our joy, anything at all thought ours— To be done with the almost unavoidable assertion Of a self she refused To let her body take on—and to be done Permanently, by making A useful choice, through a man made useful by her choosing, A man of Irish-Scandinavian stock (the only criteria, I have wondered, in angrier moments), so that Her boys, my brothers and I, or at least our bodies Emerged from hers looking Spanish, maybe Greek or Italian. Three boys, each passing Closer to her one True North. When she tells me not to put forward that I am Black, she is saying I love you. She is saying I want you to live. I see now. When she told my brother she wished He’d just find a nice blonde girl and settle down, I took her by the face And, staring into her even-keeled nonchalance, Told her I love you and you are crazy. Today I see: I am flesh, I am free To inhabit my life: to stand, to sit, to breathe, to play tag Or with a toy gun, to walk away, or to run, to put my hands up, to ask why. Today on a walk I took to release How it felt to be shut out—this time, By the editor of the African diasporic journal Who asked not me but someone who didn’t know me Was I Black— I cross 112th and Amsterdam and suddenly Am 20 years-old again, Drunk, out-of-control in pain without knowing Why, trying to jump a taxi Because I’d spent my money on booze, and the cop Whose car pulled into the crosswalk to block me, To stop me as I ran, gets out and says to me If you don’t pay the man, I’ll arrest you. I was underage. I jumped a taxi. I was incoherent and angry. I did not have the money to pay the man. I was not arrested. Turning from the news, I complain now to a friend I don’t know why we (all of us) should want to live— It’s all so futile and banal. It’s all so pointless, even when it’s good— As my mother rests inside her safe and dusty room Next to the man she crossed an ocean to find. I have thought her wrong To think that we would need saving. But what do I know Of having to choose one violence over another? Asleep now She rests inside her flesh, my father close beside her On his back, his forearm across his eyes, He who chose her, too, And over his own family, he knew to tell us, having learned early That you must cross whatever line you have to cross.
You might say fear is a predictable emotion & I might agree. Whenever my husband leaves for his graveyard shift, when he prepares to walk out into the abyss of black sky, I am afraid tonight will be the night I become a widow. I don't want to love like this. But here we are: walking hand in hand in our parkas down the avenues & he pulls away from me. I might be in some dreamy place, thinking of the roast chicken we just had, the coconut peas & rice he just cooked, & how the food has filled our bellies with delight. How many times can I speak about black men & an officer enters the scene? I don't want to love like this. But there is a gun in the holster & a hand on the gun in the holster & my husband's hands are no longer in his pockets because it is night & we are just trying to breathe in some fresh evening air, trying to be unpredictable, to forget fear for a moment & live in love & love.
All essences of sweetness from the white Warm day go up in vapor, when the dark Comes down. Ascends the tune of meadow-lark, Ascends the noon-time smell of grass, when night Takes sunlight from the world, and gives it ease. Mysterious wings have brushed the air; and light Float all the ghosts of sense and sound and sight; The silent hive is echoing the bees. So stir my thoughts at this slow, solemn time. Now only is there certainty for me When all the day's distilled and understood. Now light meets darkness: now my tendrils climb In this vast hour, up the living tree, Where gloom foregathers, and the stern winds brood.
(In Memoriam F. W. G.) Orion swung southward aslant Where the starved Egdon pine-trees had thinned, The Pleiads aloft seemed to pant With the heather that twitched in the wind; But he looked on indifferent to sights such as these, Unswayed by love, friendship, home joy or home sorrow, And wondered to what he would march on the morrow. The crazed household clock with its whirr Rang midnight within as he stood, He heard the low sighing of her Who had striven from his birth for his good; But he still only asked the spring starlight, the breeze, What great thing or small thing his history would borrow From that Game with Death he would play on the morrow. When the heath wore the robe of late summer, And the fuchsia-bells, hot in the sun, Hung red by the door, a quick comer Brought tidings that marching was done For him who had joined in that game overseas Where Death stood to win; though his memory would borrow A brightness therefrom not to die on the morrow.
The average mother loses 700 hours of sleep in the first year of her child’s life; or, what that first year taught me about America. Most of us favor one side when we walk. As we tire, we lean into that side and stop moving in a straight line— so it takes longer to get anywhere, let alone home. In wilderness conditions, where people don’t know the terrain, a tired person might end up leaning so far into one side they’ll walk in a circle rather than straight ahead. It can kill you, such leaning —and it can get you killed. Rest helps. I told my husband, I walked in a circle in my mind but you came out okay. Initially, he asked me to clarify, but then he let it go. Who wrote that first If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now sign? It seems I’m going to have to move. I am tired and also sick of helping other people in lieu of helping myself. Rest now. It's really not that bad: we’re in the home stretch. That’s the mind of a parent. Relentless optimism in the face of sheer panic and exhaustion.
See how she lists. The body is bent as light, as wind will it. And so you must tread light. Mind the rocks under foot. You must tread slow. There has been drought; see where water has long ago troughed, has carved her. See how she branches, twisting, her many hands reaching. Her roots also reach, sweetened from reaching. When fire arrives, she toughens. She will slough away the thick. She will be slick, and dark beneath the rough. She will mimic the fire her bones remember. Know her bones glisten. See how she rests. The body will fall, as time wills it. See how it hollows, how her pieces return to earth. And from her thick trunk, mushrooms cluster— Her belly a nest of moss and poison. When broken open, see what of her mother she has kept, what of her father, what of the stars.
Two weeks after 17 students were gunned down in Parkland, Fla., hundreds of worshippers clutching AR-15s slurped holy wine and exchanged or renewed wedding vows in a commitment ceremony at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, Pa.
Draped in thick silk the hue of hemorrhage and bone, you fondle your butt stocks, muffled lust needles your cheeks. Your aim? To make America great. Again, your terse-lipped Lord has nudged you into the glare—numbed and witless in His name, you preen and re-glue blessed unions, mistake America straight, contend your unloosed crave for the sugared heat of triggers. Besotted beneath your crowns of unspent shells, you hard-rhyme vows and quake, aware of that weight again, the gawky, feral gush of fetish. Every uncocked groom and rigid bride is greased and un-tongued, struck dumb by what’s at stake. A miracle waits. You men and women kaboom your hearts with skewered Spam and searing pink Walmart wine, graze idly on ammo and blood-frosted cake. A prayer is the bait. Amen woos guests in their ball gowns and bird suits, hallows your blind obsession with your incendiary intended. Though you’ve faked America, hate upends all this odd holy—its frayed altars, fumbled psalms, assault rifles chic in itty veils. And we marvel at this outbreak, bewaring that gate again, left unlatched so this bright foolish can flow through. This ilk of stupid blares blue enough to rouse ancestors—y’all ’bout to make Amiri berate again, ’bout to conjure Fannie Lou and her tree-trunk wrists. While you snot-weep, caress mute carbines, wed your unfathomable ache, America waits. ’Cause when the sacrament cools, and the moon is pocked with giggling, who’ll fall naked first, whose shuddering tongue will dare the barrel? Take that dare. Consummate. And then, whose blood will that be?
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.