I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
mercantilistic madness.

We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,

so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants

may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those

devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp

I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.

Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.

If we don’t, who will
recall in requiem
the scattering of my tribe?

In every reggae chant
stepping proud against Babylon
I hear a blue note

of lament, sweet requiem
for the countless dead,
skanking feet among shell,

coral, rainbow adze,
webbed feet, making as if

to lift, soar, fly into new days.

From Requiem. Copyright © 1996 by Kwame Dawes. Used with the permission of Peepal Tree Press.

Those four black girls blown up
in that Alabama church
remind me of five hundred
middle passage blacks,
in a net, under water
in Charleston harbor
so redcoats wouldn't find them.
Can't find what you can't see
can you?

From Images of Kin by Michael S. Harper, published by University of Illinois Press. © 1970 by Michael S. Harper. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved.

translated by Pierre Joris

Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his dogs to come
he whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth
he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you mornings and noontime we drink you evenings
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it turns dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamit we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease

He calls jab deeper into the earth you there and you other men sing and play
he grabs the gun in his belt he draws it his eyes are blue
jab deeper your spades you there and you other men continue to play for the dance

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon we drink you evenings
we drink you and drink
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit he plays with the snakes

He calls out play death more sweetly death is a master from Deutschland
he calls scrape those fiddles more darkly then as smoke you’ll rise in the air
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds there you’ll lie at ease

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Deutschland
we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and drink
death is a master from Deutschland his eye is blue
he strikes you with lead bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his dogs on us he gifts us a grave in the air
he plays with the snakes and dreams death is a master from Deutschland

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit


Todesfuge

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen

Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
er Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete

er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

Copyright © 2020 by Pierre Joris. From Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris. Used with the permission of the translator.

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them- selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

From The Country Between Us (HarperCollins Publishers, 1981) by Carolyn Forché, Copyright © 1981 by Carolyn Forché. Used with the permission of the poet. 

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used with permission.

1.

Menwi – yakwatoni – beskonewiani.
Kyebakewina – maneniaki
ketekattiki
ebemanemateki
ebemanemateki

                            *

Good-smelling are these flowers.
As it turned out, they were milkweeds
dance-standing
as the wind passes by,
as the wind passes by.

2.

Inike – ekatai – waseyaki
netena – wasesi.
Memettine
beskattenetisono.
Memettine.

                            *

It is now almost daylight,
I said to the firefly.
For the last time
illuminate yourself.
For the last time.

Originally published in the New Yorker. Copyright © 2017 by Ray A. Young Bear. Used with the permission of the author.

The cry of the cicada
Gives us no sign
That presently it will die.

 

 

                                              —Translation by William George Aston

This poem is in the public domain.

The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets’
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps
the truth is that every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we absent-mindedly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the shortgrass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, that song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?

From The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018) by Ada Limón. Copyright © 2018 by Ada Limón. Used with the permission of Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org.

I

Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:

       Sails flashing to the wind like weapons, 
       sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;   
       horror the corposant and compass rose. 

Middle Passage: 
               voyage through death 
                               to life upon these shores. 

       “10 April 1800— 
       Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says   
       their moaning is a prayer for death, 
       ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves.   
       Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter   
       to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.” 

Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann:

       Standing to America, bringing home   
       black gold, black ivory, black seed. 

               Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
               of his bones New England pews are made,   
               those are altar lights that were his eyes.

Jesus    Saviour    Pilot    Me 
Over    Life’s    Tempestuous    Sea 

We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,   
safe passage to our vessels bringing   
heathen souls unto Thy chastening. 

Jesus    Saviour 

       “8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick 
       with fear, but writing eases fear a little 
       since still my eyes can see these words take shape   
       upon the page & so I write, as one 
       would turn to exorcism. 4 days scudding, 
       but now the sea is calm again. Misfortune 
       follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning   
       tutelary gods). Which one of us 
       has killed an albatross? A plague among 
       our blacks—Ophthalmia: blindness—& we   
       have jettisoned the blind to no avail. 
       It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads. 
       Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.'s eyes   
       & there is blindness in the fo’c’sle 
       & we must sail 3 weeks before we come 
       to port.” 

               What port awaits us, Davy Jones’ 
               or home? I’ve heard of slavers drifting, drifting,   
               playthings of wind and storm and chance, their crews   
               gone blind, the jungle hatred 
               crawling up on deck.

Thou    Who    Walked    On    Galilee 

       “Deponent further sayeth The Bella J 
       left the Guinea Coast 
       with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd   
       for the barracoons of Florida: 

       “That there was hardly room ’tween-decks for half   
       the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;   
       that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh   
       and sucked the blood: 

       “That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest   
       of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;   
       that there was one they called The Guinea Rose   
       and they cast lots and fought to lie with her: 

       “That when the Bo’s’n piped all hands, the flames   
       spreading from starboard already were beyond   
       control, the negroes howling and their chains   
       entangled with the flames: 

       “That the burning blacks could not be reached,   
       that the Crew abandoned ship, 
       leaving their shrieking negresses behind, 
       that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches: 

       “Further Deponent sayeth not.” 

Pilot    Oh    Pilot    Me 

 

       II

Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,   
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar; 
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps   
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished 

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.   
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity 
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,   
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us. 

And there was one—King Anthracite we named him— 
fetish face beneath French parasols 
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth 
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies: 

He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo   
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,   
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,   
red calico and German-silver trinkets 

Would have the drums talk war and send   
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages   
and kill the sick and old and lead the young   
in coffles to our factories. 

Twenty years a trader, twenty years, 
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested   
from those black fields, and I’d be trading still   
but for the fevers melting down my bones. 

 

       III

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,   
the dark ships move, the dark ships move,   
their bright ironical names 
like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;   
plough through thrashing glister toward   
fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,   
weave toward New World littorals that are   
mirage and myth and actual shore. 

Voyage through death, 
                               voyage whose chartings are unlove. 

A charnel stench, effluvium of living death   
spreads outward from the hold, 
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,   
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement. 

       Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
       the corpse of mercy rots with him,   
       rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes. 

       But, oh, the living look at you 
       with human eyes whose suffering accuses you,   
       whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark   
       to strike you like a leper’s claw. 

       You cannot stare that hatred down 
       or chain the fear that stalks the watches 
       and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;   
       cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will.

               “But for the storm that flung up barriers   
               of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores, 
               would have reached the port of Príncipe in two,   
               three days at most; but for the storm we should   
               have been prepared for what befell.   
               Swift as the puma’s leap it came. There was   
               that interval of moonless calm filled only   
               with the water’s and the rigging’s usual sounds,   
               then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries   
               and they had fallen on us with machete   
               and marlinspike. It was as though the very   
               air, the night itself were striking us.   
               Exhausted by the rigors of the storm, 
               we were no match for them. Our men went down   
               before the murderous Africans. Our loyal   
               Celestino ran from below with gun   
               and lantern and I saw, before the cane- 
               knife’s wounding flash, Cinquez, 
               that surly brute who calls himself a prince,   
               directing, urging on the ghastly work. 
               He hacked the poor mulatto down, and then   
               he turned on me. The decks were slippery 
               when daylight finally came. It sickens me   
               to think of what I saw, of how these apes   
               threw overboard the butchered bodies of 
               our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam.   
               Enough, enough. The rest is quickly told:   
               Cinquez was forced to spare the two of us   
               you see to steer the ship to Africa,   
               and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea   
               voyaged east by day and west by night,   
               deceiving them, hoping for rescue,   
               prisoners on our own vessel, till   
               at length we drifted to the shores of this   
               your land, America, where we were freed   
               from our unspeakable misery. Now we   
               demand, good sirs, the extradition of   
               Cinquez and his accomplices to La   
               Havana. And it distresses us to know   
               there are so many here who seem inclined   
               to justify the mutiny of these blacks.   
               We find it paradoxical indeed 
               that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty   
               are rooted in the labor of your slaves 
               should suffer the august John Quincy Adams   
               to speak with so much passion of the right   
               of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters   
               and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s   
               garland for Cinquez. I tell you that   
               we are determined to return to Cuba 
               with our slaves and there see justice done. Cinquez— 
               or let us say ‘the Prince’—Cinquez shall die.” 

       The deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will: 

               Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,   
               life that transfigures many lives. 

       Voyage through death 
                                     to life upon these shores.

Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden, from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden by Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful 
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,   
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,   
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,   
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more   
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:   
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro   
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world   
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,   
this man, superb in love and logic, this man   
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,   
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, 
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives   
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

"Frederick Douglass." Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From Collected Poems of Robert Hayden by Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves...
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
— William Cowper, from “Pity for Poor Africans”

oh
peerless
smell of cane
cloud on triangular
horizon whip trilling a red
aria molasses the smelling hull
& chained bones the practical sharks
trailing hoping for new bodies overboard

(dark/
dark/pale/
dark/pale/dark/
dark/exchange/fresh/
exchange/flesh/exchange/
fresh/blood/blood/blood/blood/
dark/dark/pale/dark/pale/dark/exchange/
flesh/exchange/fresh/exchange/flesh/blood)

&
the sea
taste blessed rape
hollowed burn & brand
some girls mostly boys this holy
trinity of “godless dirty savages” island
patois rum down a throat lump in some tea
science of journey & the peerless smell of cane

Copyright © 2020 Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. From The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan University Press, 2020). Used with permission of the author.

"Their colour is a diabolic die."
            —Phillis Wheatley

What they say they are
And what they actually do
Is what Phillis overhears.
It’s like she isn’t there.
It’s like she’s a ghost, at arm’s length, hearing
The living curse out the dead—
Which, she’s been led to believe
No decent person does in a church.

How they say they love her
And how they look at her
Is what Phillis observes;
Like she’s the hole in the pocket
After the money rolls out.

God loves everybody—even the sinner,
(they say)
Even a mangy hound can rely
On a scrap of meat, scraped off the plate
(they say).

What they testify
And what they whisper in earshot
Is as dark as her skin, whistled from opposite sides
Of a mouth.

Is she the bible’s fine print?

Copyright © 2020 by Cornelius Eady. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 15, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

Motivated forgetting is a psychological defense mechanism whereby people cope with threatening and unwanted memories by suppressing them from consciousness.
            —Amy N. Dalton and Li Huang

              in Badagry there is a hung-
              ry well of water and memory

 

                                                         loss. in Badagry there was a well 
                                                         of people lost across a haven 

 

of water. in Badagry there was
a port overwhelmed in un-return. 

 

                                    to omit within the mind is to ebb
                                    heavenward. memory is a wealth 

 

                                                      choking the brain in un-respons-
                                                      ibility. violence in the mind and 

 

                                    the mind forgets in order to remember
                                    the self before the violence begot. 

 

in Badagry trauma washes ungod-
ly memory heavenward. in Bad-

 

                                       agry there is an attenuation well 
                                       meant to wish away a passage, 

 

                                                                      meant to unhaven a people.
                                                                      violence is underwhelming

 

                                         in return. what the body eats, 
                                         the mind waters. responsible 

 

is the memory for un-remittal. 
royal is the body for return. god is

 

                                     the mind for wafting. forgetting 
                                     is a port homeward. in Bad- 

 

                                                   agry hungry memory grows angry.
                                                   in Badagry the memories un- 

 

                 choke. trauma un-eats the royal. 
                 in Badagry there is a heaven 

 

                                               of people responsible for the birth- 
                                               right of remembering, for the well 

 

                                      of us across a haven of water
                                      overwhelmed in un-return.

Copyright © 2020 by Porsha Olayiwola. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 17, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

J’ai rapporté du désespoir un panier si petit mon amour, qu’on a pu le tresser en osier.
I brought from despair a basket so small, my love, that it might have been woven of willow.

                                                                                       —Rene Char
 

to speak is not yet to have spoken.

the not-yet of a white realm of nothing left

neither for itself nor another

a no-longer already there, along with the arrival of what has been 

light and the reverse of light

terror as walking blind along the breaking sea, body in whom I lived

the not-yet of death darkening what it briefly illuminates

an unknown place as between languages

back and forth, breath to breath as a calm

in the surround rises, fireflies in lindens, an ache of pine

you have yourself within you

yourself, you have her, and there is nothing

that cannot be seen

open then to the coming of what comes

From In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Forché.

The haunting has killed before.
Find words to describe the stone
heavy in the bowels. Before us
are the disasters we make
of our lives. I am a clumsy
journeyman. You find me on
a road that curls across green
plains. You see me with my staff
from so many miles away. We follow
the contours the mountains
make of the road until, hours
later, after two light showers
and a burst of sunlight we
meet. I tell you I am doing
penance. I promise that these
words I am speaking are the breaking
of a long fast, and my voice
sounds alien even to me.
You ask why I wince like that.
“The silence,” I say. “It bruises, as well.”
And after the elation of this meeting,
we part, you towards the light, me
into the gloom you left behind.

Copyright © 2022 by Kwame Dawes. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 28, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

Do you still believe in borders now?  

Birds soar over your maps and walls, and always have.     

You might have watched how the smoke from your own fires  

travelled on wind you couldn’t see    

                                            wafting over the valley

and up and over the hills and over the next valley and the next hill.

 

Did you not hear the animals howl and sing?   

Or hear the silence of the animals no longer singing?   

Now you know what it is to be afraid.  

You think this is a dream?  It is not

a dream.    You think this is a theoretical question?  

What do you love more than what you imagine is your singular life?   

The water grows clearer.  The swans settle and float there.    

 

Are you willing to take your place in the forest again?    to become loam and bark

to be a leaf falling. from a great height.  to be the worm who eats the leaf

and the bird who eats the worm?    Look at the sky: are you

willing to be the sky again?  

 

                                              You think this lesson is 

too hard for you    You want the time-out to end.  You want

to go to the movies as before, to sit and eat with your friends.

It can end now, but not in the way you imagine    You know

the mind that has been talking to you for so long—the mind that

can explain everything?    Don’t listen.
 

You were once a citizen of a country called I Don’t Know.

Remember the burning boat that brought you there?   Climb in.

Copyright © 2021 by Marie Howe. Used with permission of the poet.

The things that abandon you get remembered different.
As precise as the English language can be, with words
like penultimate and perseverate, there is not a combination
of sounds that describe only that leaving. Once,
drinking & smoking with buddies, a friend asked if
I’d longed for a father. Had he said wanted, I would have
dismissed him in the way that youngins dismiss it all:
a shrug, sarcasm, a jab to the stomach, laughter.
But he said longing. & in a different place, I might
have wept. Said, once, my father lived with us & then he
didn’t & it fucked me up so much I never thought about
his leaving until I held my own son in my arms & only
now speak on it. A man who drank Boone’s Farm & Mad
Dog like water once told me & some friends that there is no
word for father where he comes from, not like we know it.
There, the word father is the same as the word for listen.
The blunts we passed around let us forget our
tongues. Not that much though. But what if the old
head knew something? & if you have no father, you can’t
hear straight. Years later, another friend wondered why
I named my son after my father. You know, that’s a thing
turn your life to a prayer that no dead man gonna answer.

From Felon. Copyright © 2019 by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Used by permission of the author.

We drank hard water.
Spoke in plain language.

Said what we didn't

with a joke or a look.
One went missing—

let silence drill its hole.
A second fell ill.

We cloaked our mirrors.
Slashed a red X

on the door to our house.
Pass over us, I asked

the raven sky,
or burn in me

a second mouth.

From How To Catch a Falling Knife by Daniel Johnson. Copyright © 2010 by Daniel Johnson. Used by permission of Alice James. All rights reserved.

translated by Pierre Joris

In the muddled eyes—read there:

the sun’s, the heart’s ecliptics, the
gorgeously whizzing Fornothing.
The deaths and everything
they gave birth to. The
generation-chain,
that lies buried here and
that still hangs here, in the ether,
edging the abysses. All
the faces’ writing, into which
whirring wordsand drilled—Mini-eternal,
syllables.

Everything,
even the heaviest, was
fledged, nothing
held back.


In den verfahrenen Augen – lies da:

die Sonnen-, die Herzbahnen, das
sausend-schöne Umsonst.
Die Tode und alles
aus ihnen Geborene. Die
Geschlechterkette,
die hier bestattet liegt und
die hier noch hängt, im Äther,
Abgründe säumend. Aller
Gesichter Schrift, in die sich
schwirrender Wortsand gebohrt—Kleinewiges,
Silben.

Alles,
das Schwerste noch, war
flügge, nichts
hielt zurück.

Copyright © 2020 by Pierre Joris. From Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris. Used with the permission of the translator.

O little root of a dream 
you hold me here 
undermined by blood, 
no longer visible to anyone, 
property of death.

Curve a face
that there may be speech, of earth, 
of ardor, of
things with eyes, even
here, where you read me blind,

even 
here, 
where you 
refute me, 
to the letter.

Reproduced from The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology: Selections from the 2001 Shortlist, published by House of Anansi Press. Originally from Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan. Copyright © 2000 by translators Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved.

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.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Knopf and Vintage Books. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

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.

From How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes, published on March 31, 2015, by Penguin Poets, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Terrance Hayes.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem is in the public domain.

There’s no sense
in telling you my particular
troubles. You have yours too.
Is there value
in comparing notes?
Unlike Williams writing
poems on prescription pads
between patients, I have
no prescriptions for you.
I’m more interested
in the particular
nature and tenor of the energy
of our trouble. Maybe
that’s not enough for you.
Sometimes I stick in
some music. I’m capable
of hallucination
so there’s nothing wrong
with my images. As for me,
I’m not looking for wisdom.
The wise don’t often write
wisely, do they? The danger
is in teetering into platitudes.
Maybe Keats was preternaturally
wise but what he gave us
was beauty, whatever that is,
and truth, synonymous, he wrote,
with beauty, and not the same
as wisdom. Maybe truth
is the raw material of wisdom
before it has been conformed
by ego, fear, and time,
like a shot
of whiskey without
embellishment, or truth lays bare
the broken bone and wisdom
scurries in, wanting
to cover and justify it. It’s really
kind of a nasty
enterprise. Who wants anyone
else’s hands on their pain?
And I’d rather be arrested
than advised, even on my
taxes. So what
can poetry be now? Dangerous
to approach such a question,
and difficult to find the will to care.
But we must not languish, soldiers,
(according to the wise,)
we must go so far as to invent
new mechanisms of caring.
Maybe truth, yes, delivered
with clarity. The tone is up
to you. Truth, unabridged,
has become in itself a strange
and beautiful thing.
Truth may involve a degree
of seeing through time.
Even developing a relationship
with a thing before writing,
whether a bird
or an idea about birds, it doesn’t
matter. But please not only
a picture of a bird. Err
on the side of humility, though
humility can be declarative.
It does not submit. It can even appear
audacious. It takes mettle
to propose truth
and pretend it is generalizable.
Truth should sting, in its way,
like a major bee, not a sweat bee.
It may target the reader like an arrow,
or be swallowable, a watermelon
seed we feared as children
would take up residency in our guts
and grow unabated and change us
forever into something viny
and prolific and terrible.
As for beauty, a problematic word,
one to be side-eyed lest it turn you
to stone or salt,
it is not something to work on
but a biproduct, at times,
of the process of our making.
Beauty comes or it doesn’t, as do
its equally compelling counterparts,
inelegance and vileness.
This we learned from Baudelaire,
Flaubert, Rimbaud, Genet, male poets
of the lavishly grotesque.
You’ve seen those living rooms,
the red velvet walls and lampshades
fringed gold, cat hair thick
on the couches,
and you have been weirdly
compelled, even cushioned,
by them. Either way,
please don’t tell me flowers
are beautiful and blood clots
are ugly. These things I know,
or I know this is how
flowers and blood clots
are assessed by those content
with stale orthodoxies.
Maybe there is such a thing
as the beauty of drawing near.
Near, nearer, all the way
to the bedside of the dying
world. To sit in witness,
without platitudes, no matter
the distortions of the death throes,
no matter the awful music
of the rattle. Close, closer,
to that sheeted edge.
From this vantage point
poetry can still be beautiful.
It can even be useful, though
never wise.
 

Copyright © 2022 by Diane Seuss. This poem originally appeared in Chicago Review, January 28, 2022. Used with permission of the author.

A naked child is running
along the path toward us,
her arms stretched out,
her mouth open,
the world turned to trash
behind her.

She is running from the smoke
and the soldiers, from the bodies
of her mother and little sister
thrown down into a ditch,
from the blown-up bamboo hut
from the melted pots and pans.
And she is also running from the gods
who have changed the sky to fire
and puddled the earth with skin and blood.
She is running--my god--to us,
10,000 miles away,
reading the caption
beneath her picture
in a weekly magazine.
All over the country
we're feeling sorry for her
and being appalled at the war
being fought in the other world.
She keeps on running, you know,
after the shutter of the camera
clicks. She's running to us.
For how can she know,
her feet beating a path
on another continent?
How can she know
what we really are?
From the distance, we look
so terribly human.

From A Chorus for Peace: A Global Anthology of Poetry by Women, edited by Marilyn Arnold, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, and Kristen Tracy, published by the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2002 by the University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved.

Three-quarter size. Full size would break the heart.
She, still bare-breasted from the auction block,
sits staring, perhaps realizing what
will happen to them next. There is no child,
though there must be a child who will be left
behind, or who was auctioned separately.
Her arms are limp, defeated, her thin hands
lie still in surrender.
He cowers at her side,
his head under her arm,
his body pressed to hers
like a boy hiding behind his mother.
He should protect his woman. He is strong,
his shoulder and arm muscled from hard work,
his hand, thickened by labor, on her thigh
as if to comfort, though he can’t protect.
His brow is furrowed, his eyes blank, unfocused.
What words are there to describe hopelessness?
A word that means both bull-whipped and spat on?
Is there a name for mute, depthless abyss?
A word that means Where the hell are you, God?
What would they ask God, if they could believe?
But how can they believe, while the blue sky
smiles innocently, pretends nothing is wrong.
They stood stripped up there, as they were described
like animals who couldn’t understand
how cheap a life can be made.
Their naked feet. Her collarbone. The vein
traveling his bicep. Gussie’s answer
to presidents on Mount Rushmore,
to monumental generals whose stars
and sabers say black pain
did not then and still does not matter.

Copyright © 2021 by Marilyn Nelson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 5, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1973 by Adrienne Rich.

A naked child is running
along the path toward us,
her arms stretched out,
her mouth open,
the world turned to trash
behind her.

She is running from the smoke
and the soldiers, from the bodies
of her mother and little sister
thrown down into a ditch,
from the blown-up bamboo hut
from the melted pots and pans.
And she is also running from the gods
who have changed the sky to fire
and puddled the earth with skin and blood.
She is running--my god--to us,
10,000 miles away,
reading the caption
beneath her picture
in a weekly magazine.
All over the country
we're feeling sorry for her
and being appalled at the war
being fought in the other world.
She keeps on running, you know,
after the shutter of the camera
clicks. She's running to us.
For how can she know,
her feet beating a path
on another continent?
How can she know
what we really are?
From the distance, we look
so terribly human.

From A Chorus for Peace: A Global Anthology of Poetry by Women, edited by Marilyn Arnold, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, and Kristen Tracy, published by the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2002 by the University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by the Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by The Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Three-quarter size. Full size would break the heart.
She, still bare-breasted from the auction block,
sits staring, perhaps realizing what
will happen to them next. There is no child,
though there must be a child who will be left
behind, or who was auctioned separately.
Her arms are limp, defeated, her thin hands
lie still in surrender.
He cowers at her side,
his head under her arm,
his body pressed to hers
like a boy hiding behind his mother.
He should protect his woman. He is strong,
his shoulder and arm muscled from hard work,
his hand, thickened by labor, on her thigh
as if to comfort, though he can’t protect.
His brow is furrowed, his eyes blank, unfocused.
What words are there to describe hopelessness?
A word that means both bull-whipped and spat on?
Is there a name for mute, depthless abyss?
A word that means Where the hell are you, God?
What would they ask God, if they could believe?
But how can they believe, while the blue sky
smiles innocently, pretends nothing is wrong.
They stood stripped up there, as they were described
like animals who couldn’t understand
how cheap a life can be made.
Their naked feet. Her collarbone. The vein
traveling his bicep. Gussie’s answer
to presidents on Mount Rushmore,
to monumental generals whose stars
and sabers say black pain
did not then and still does not matter.

Copyright © 2021 by Marilyn Nelson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 5, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.