During the last 50 miles back from haul & some
months past my 15th birthday, my father fishes
a stuffed polar bear from a Salvation Army
gift-bin, labeled Boys: 6-10. I can almost see him
approach the decision: cold, a little hungry, not enough
money in his pocket for coffee. He worries
he might fall asleep behind the wheel as his giant,
clumsy love for that small word—son—guides
his gaze to the crudely-sewn fabric of the miniature bear
down at the bottom of the barrel. Seasons have flared
& gone out with little change in his fear of stopping
for too long in any city, where he knows the addict
in him waits, patient as a desert bloom. Meanwhile, me:
his eldest child, the uneasy guardian of the house.
In his absence, I’ve not yet lost my virginity,
but I’ve had fist-fights with grown men & seen
my mother dragging her religious beliefs to the bitter
border of divorce. For years my father’s had trouble
saying no to crack-cocaine & women flowered in cheap
summer dresses. Watch his face as he arrives at last
& stretches the toy out, my mother fixed
on the porch behind me, the word son suddenly heavy
in my father’s mouth, his gray coat gathered
around his shoulders: he’s never looked so small.
We could crush him—we hug him instead.
"What I Mean When I Say Truck Driver" from Revising the Storm. Copyright © 2014 by Geffrey Davis, BOA Editions, Ltd. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
New Orleans, a Tuesday, 7:30 A.M.
I’m sipping coffee at a McDonald’s on Canal
when two young black men, early twenties perhaps,
walk in, buying nothing. Suddenly,
I’m aboard a mothership,
streaking toward the farthest stars.
One, like a fly, bobs the aisles, sweaty
in his Crown Royal muscle shirt.
Gym shorts hanging off his ass,
headset in his ears, he pantomimes
a singer and dances a Mardi Gras mambo
in July, with himself, second-lining
silky-smoothly across the floor, out the door,
onto the parking lot—his own block party
without the block.
The other, well-groomed, small backpack,
talks loudly, eloquently to himself
about home, what it is, isn’t and should be, then,
facing the faces, he launches a soliloquy
of senseless babble,
and you sense the other—
the voices, a stage, curtain and cast,
his fans and followers looking on,
inside his head.
I’m gazing stars. Drawn to the glow
of their wayward worlds,
I can’t help
but pause, watch and listen.
but scared, because they’re black men
and I’m one, too,
with a son and grandsons of my own,
and I can’t help
but ponder: what’s loose,
what’s broken, what’s gone wrong,
what’s the fix?
From Soul Be A Witness (MadHat Press, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by John Warner Smith. Used with the permission of the author.
Like everything delicious, I was warned against it.
Those mornings, I’d slowly descend the stairs
in my plaid Catholic school uniform skirt, find my parents
eating behind newspapers, coned in separate silences.
The only music was the throat-clearing rasp of toast
being scraped with too-little butter, three passes
of the blade, kkrrrrr, kkrrrr, kkrrr, battle hymn of the eighties.
When I pulled the butter close, my mother’s eyes
would twitch to my knife, measuring my measuring--
the goal, she’d shared from Weight Watchers,
a pat so thin the light shines through. If I disobeyed,
indulged, slathered my toast to glistening lace,
I’d earn her favorite admonition, predictable as Sunday’s
dry communion wafer: “A moment on the lips . . .”
I couldn’t stop my head from chiming, forever on the hips.
Hips? They were my other dangerous excess.
I was growing them in secret beneath my skirt,
and when I walked the dog after breakfast
and a truck whooshed past from behind, the trucker’s eyes
sizzling mine in his rear view, I knew my secret
wouldn’t stay a secret long. They were paired, up top,
by a swelling, flesh rising like cream to fill, then overfill
the frothy training bra. Everything softening on the shelf,
milk-made. Meanwhile, at breakfast, sitting on my secret,
I’d concede, scrape kkrrrrr, kkrrrr, kkrrr, lay down
my weapon, dry toast sticking in my craw. I’d think
of the girl from school, seventeen to my fourteen,
who crawled out the window of first-period bio
to meet her boyfriend from the Navy base. She’d collar
his peacoat, draw his mouth to her white neck,
or so I kept imagining. Slut, the girls whispered, watching
her struggling back through the window, throat
pinked from cold and his jaw’s dark stubble,
kkrrrrr, kkrrrr, kkrrr. Only fourth period,
and already I was hungry for lunch, or something.
Thank you, Republican parents, thank you,
Catholic education, thank you, Reganomics—
words I never knew I’d write. But I hereby acknowledge
repression’s inadvertent gifts. Folks who came of age
in liberal families, permissive cities, the free-love sixties,
how far they must go to transgress—
Vegas, latex, sex tapes, a sugaring of the nostrils?
Yet how close at hand rebellion is for me.
Merely making married love with my married husband,
I’m a filthy whore. Merely sitting down to breakfast
and raising the butter knife, I’m living on the edge.
Published in American Poetry Review (March/April, 2020: 40). Used with permission by the author.