The world below the brine, Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves, Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf, Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water, Dumb swimmers there among the rocks,coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the swimmers, Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom, The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes, The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray, Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do, The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this sphere, The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.
This poem is in the public domain.
Backing out the driveway the car lights cast an eerie glow in the morning fog centering on movement in the rain slick street Hitting brakes I anticipate a squirrel or a cat or sometimes a little raccoon I once braked for a blind little mole who try though he did could not escape the cat toying with his life Mother-to-be possum occasionally lopes home . . . being naturally . . . slow her condition makes her even more ginger We need a sign POSSUM CROSSING to warn coffee-gurgling neighbors: we share the streets with more than trucks and vans and railroad crossings All birds being the living kin of dinosaurs think themselves invincible and pay no heed to the rolling wheels while they dine on an unlucky rabbit I hit brakes for the flutter of the lights hoping it's not a deer or a skunk or a groundhog coffee splashes over the cup which I quickly put away from me and into the empty passenger seat I look . . . relieved and exasperated ... to discover I have just missed a big wet leaf struggling . . . to lift itself into the wind and live
"Possum Crossing" from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea by Nikki Giovanni. Copyright © 2002 by Nikki Giovanni. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
From The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks, published by Harpers. © 1960 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
She was thinner, with a mannered gauntness as she paused just inside the double glass doors to survey the room, silvery cape billowing dramatically behind her. What's this, I thought, lifting a hand until she nodded and started across the parquet; that's when I saw she was dressed all in gray, from a kittenish cashmere skirt and cowl down to the graphite signature of her shoes. "Sorry I'm late," she panted, though she wasn't, sliding into the chair, her cape tossed off in a shudder of brushed steel. We kissed. Then I leaned back to peruse my blighted child, this wary aristocratic mole. "How's business?" I asked, and hazarded a motherly smile to keep from crying out: Are you content to conduct your life as a cliché and, what's worse, an anachronism, the brooding artist's demimonde? Near the rue Princesse they had opened a gallery cum souvenir shop which featured fuzzy off-color Monets next to his acrylics, no doubt, plus beared African drums and the occasional miniature gargoyle from Notre Dame the Great Artist had carved at breakfast with a pocket knife. "Tourists love us. The Parisians, of course"-- she blushed--"are amused, though not without a certain admiration . . ." The Chateaubriand arrived on a bone-white plate, smug and absolute in its fragrant crust, a black plug steaming like the heart plucked from the chest of a worthy enemy; one touch with her fork sent pink juices streaming. "Admiration for what?" Wine, a bloody Pinot Noir, brought color to her cheeks. "Why, the aplomb with which we've managed to support our Art"--meaning he'd convinced her to pose nude for his appalling canvases, faintly futuristic landscapes strewn with carwrecks and bodies being chewed by rabid cocker spaniels. "I'd like to come by the studio," I ventured, "and see the new stuff." "Yes, if you wish . . ." A delicate rebuff before the warning: "He dresses all in black now. Me, he drapes in blues and carmine-- and even though I think it's kinda cute, in company I tend toward more muted shades." She paused and had the grace to drop her eyes. She did look ravishing, spookily insubstantial, a lipstick ghost on tissue, or as if one stood on a fifth-floor terrace peering through a fringe of rain at Paris' dreaming chimney pots, each sooty issue wobbling skyward in an ecstatic oracular spiral. "And he never thinks of food. I wish I didn't have to plead with him to eat. . . ." Fruit and cheese appeared, arrayed on leaf-green dishes. I stuck with café crème. "This Camembert's so ripe," she joked, "it's practically grown hair," mucking a golden glob complete with parsley sprig onto a heel of bread. Nothing seemed to fill her up: She swallowed, sliced into a pear, speared each tear-shaped lavaliere and popped the dripping mess into her pretty mouth. Nowhere the bright tufted fields, weighted vines and sun poured down out of the south. "But are you happy?" Fearing, I whispered it quickly. "What? You know, Mother"-- she bit into the starry rose of a fig-- "one really should try the fruit here." I've lost her, I thought, and called for the bill.
From Mother Love, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Rita Dove. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
curling them around i hold their bodies in obscene embrace thinking of everything but kinship. collards and kale strain against each strange other away from my kissmaking hand and the iron bedpot. the pot is black. the cutting board is black, my hand, and just for a minute the greens roll black under the knife, and the kitchen twists dark on its spine and i taste in my natural appetite the bond of live things everywhere.
From An Ordinary Woman by Lucille Clifton published by Random House. Copyright © 1974 Lucille Clifton. Used with permission.
Somebody come and carry me into a seven-day kiss
I can’ use no historic no national no family bliss
I need an absolutely one to one a seven-day kiss
I can read the daily papers
I can even make a speech
But the news is stuff that tapers
down to salt poured in the breach
I been scheming about my people I been scheming about sex
I been dreaming about Africa and nightmaring Oedipus the Rex
But what I need is quite specific
terrifying rough stuff and terrific
I need an absolutely one to one a seven-day kiss
I can’ use no more historic no national no bona fide family bliss
Somebody come and carry me into a seven-day kiss
Somebody come on
Somebody come on and carry me
Copyright © 2017 by the June M. Jordan Literary Estate. Used with the permission of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate, www.junejordan.com.
The fist clenched round my heart loosens a little, and I gasp brightness; but it tightens again. When have I ever not loved the pain of love? But this has moved past love to mania. This has the strong clench of the madman, this is gripping the ledge of unreason, before plunging howling into the abyss. Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live.
"The Fist" from Collected Poems: 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott. Copyright © 1986 by Derek Walcott. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died. This is not to suggest no one died. When I was eight my mother became pregnant. She went to the hospital to give birth and returned without the baby. Where’s the baby? we asked. Did she shrug? She was the kind of woman who liked to shrug; deep within her was an everlasting shrug. That didn’t seem like a death. The years went by and people only died on television—if they weren't Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill. Then I returned home from school one day and saw my father sitting on the steps of our home. He had a look that was unfamiliar; it was flooded, so leaking. I climbed the steps as far away from him as I could get. He was breaking or broken. Or, to be more precise, he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead. I’d never met her. It meant a trip back home for him. When he returned he spoke neither about the airplane nor the funeral.
Every movie I saw while in the third grade compelled me to ask, Is he dead? Is she dead? Because the characters often live against all odds it is the actors whose mortality concerned me. If it were an old, black-and-white film, whoever was around would answer yes. Months later the actor would show up on some latenight talk show to promote his latest efforts. I would turn and say—one always turns to say—You said he was dead. And the misinformed would claim, I never said he was dead. Yes, you did. No, I didn’t. Inevitably we get older; whoever is still with us says, Stop asking me that.
Or one begins asking oneself that same question differently. Am I dead? Though this question at no time explicitly translates into Should I be dead, eventually the suicide hotline is called. You are, as usual, watching television, the eight-o’clock movie, when a number flashes on the screen: I-800-SUICIDE. You dial the number. Do you feel like killing yourself? the man on the other end of the receiver asks. You tell him, I feel like I am already dead. When he makes no response you add, I am in death’s position. He finally says, Don’t believe what you are thinking and feeling. Then he asks, Where do you live?
Fifteen minutes later the doorbell rings. You explain to the ambulance attendant that you had a momentary lapse of happily. The noun, happiness, is a static state of some Platonic ideal you know better than to pursue. Your modifying process had happily or unhappily experienced a momentary pause. This kind of thing happens, perhaps is still happening. He shrugs and in turn explains that you need to come quietly or he will have to restrain you. If he is forced to restrain you, he will have to report that he is forced to restrain you. It is this simple: Resistance will only make matters more difficult. Any resistance will only make matters worse. By law, I will have to restrain you. His tone suggests that you should try to understand the difficulty in which he finds himself. This is further disorienting. I am fine! Can't you see that! You climb into the ambulance unassisted.
Excerpt from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely copyright © 2004 by Claudia Rankine. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. All rights reserved.
Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
—Rudyard Kipling, "A Counting-Out Song,"
in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, 1923
The woman with cheerleading legs has been left for dead. She hot paces a roof, four days, three nights, her leaping fingers, helium arms rise & fall, pulling at the week- old baby in the bassinet, pointing to the eighty- two-year-old grandmother, fanning & raspy in the New Orleans Saints folding chair. Eenee Menee Mainee Mo! Three times a day the helicopter flies by in a low crawl. The grandmother insists on not being helpless, so she waves a white hand- kerchief that she puts on and takes off her head toward the cameraman and the pilot who remembers well the art of his mirrored-eyed posture in his low-flying helicopter: Bong Son, Dong Ha, Pleiku, Chu Lai. He makes a slow Vietcong dip & dive, a move known in Rescue as the Observation Pass. The roof is surrounded by broken-levee water. The people are dark but not broken. Starv- ing, abandoned, dehydrated, brown & cumulous, but not broken. The four-hundred-year-old anniversary of observation begins, again— Eenee Menee Mainee Mo! Catch a— The woman with pom-pom legs waves her uneven homemade sign: Pleas Help Pleas and even if the e has been left off the Pleas e do you know simply by looking at her that it has been left off because she can't spell (and therefore is not worth saving) or was it because the water was rising so fast there wasn't time? Eenee Menee Mainee Mo! Catch a— a— The low-flying helicopter does not know the answer. It catches all this on patriotic tape, but does not land, and does not drop dictionary, or ladder. Regulations require an e be at the end of any Pleas e before any national response can be taken. Therefore, it takes four days before the national council of observers will consider dropping one bottle of water, or one case of dehydrated baby formula, on the roof where the e has rolled off into the flood, (but obviously not splashed loud enough) where four days later not the mother, not the baby girl, but the determined hanky waver, whom they were both named for, (and after) has now been covered up with a green plastic window awning, pushed over to the side right where the missing e was last seen. My mother said to pick The very best one! What else would you call it, Mr. Every-Child-Left-Behind. Anyone you know ever left off or put on an e by mistake? Potato Po tato e In the future observation helicopters will leave the well-observed South and fly in Kanye-West-Was-Finally-Right formation. They will arrive over burning San Diego. The fires there will be put out so well. The people there will wait in a civilized manner. And they will receive foie gras and free massage for all their trouble, while there houses don't flood, but instead burn calmly to the ground. The grandmothers were right about everything. People who outlived bullwhips & Bull Connor, historically afraid of water and routinely fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar- heat of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by forty feet of churning water, in the summer of 2005, while the richest country in the world played the old observation game, studied the situation: wondered by committee what to do; counted, in private, by long historical division; speculated whether or not some people are surely born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear. My mother said to pick The very best one And you are not it! After all, it was only po' New Orleans, old bastard city of funny spellers. Nonswimmers with squeeze-box accordion accents. Who would be left alive to care?
From Head Off & Split: Poems, published by Triquarterly Books. Copyright © 2011 Nikky Finney. Used by permission of the publisher.
It moves my heart to see your awakened faces;
the look of “aha!”
shining, finally, in
wide open eyes.
Yes, we are the 99%
all of us
refusing to forget
no matter, in our hunger, what crumbs
are dropped by
The world we want is on the way; Arundhati
and now we
hearing her breathing.
That world we want is Us; united; already moving
Copyright © 2014 by Alice Walker. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
This bassline is sticky like asphalt
and wet like molasses heated nice and hot,
and the bass drum booms my heart,
jumping me, jump-starting me
to find the path of this sluggish sound;
I follow the tap like a fly catching light
in its rainbow gossamer wings
on top of a big-ear elephant;
I follow the pluck of a mute lead-guitar string,
tacking, tacking out a tattoo to the bassline;
I let the syrup surround my legs
and my waist is moving without a cue,
without a clue of where we are going,
walking on the spot like this.
Coolly, deadly, roots sound on my back,
and I can conjure hope in anything;
dreams in my cubbyhole of a room where
the roaches scuttle from the tonguing gecko.
This music finds me giddy and centered, but when
morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again.
From Jacko Jacobus. Copyright © 1996 by Kwame Dawes. Used with the permission of Peepal Tree Press.
(for ifa, p.t., & bisa)
my father is a retired magician
which accounts for my irregular behavior
everythin comes outta magic hats
or bottles wit no bottoms & parakeets
are as easy to get as a couple a rabbits
or 3 fifty cent pieces/ 1958
my daddy retired from magic & took
up another trade cuz this friend of mine
from the 3rd grade asked to be made white
on the spot
what cd any self-respectin colored american magician
do wit such a outlandish request/ cept
put all them razzamatazz hocus pocus zippity-do-dah
thingamajigs away cuz
colored chirren believin in magic
waz becomin politically dangerous for the race
& waznt nobody gonna be made white
on the spot just
from a clap of my daddy’s hands
& the reason i’m so peculiar’s
cuz i been studyin up on my daddy’s technique
& everythin i do is magic these days
& it’s very colored
very now you see it/ now you
dont mess wit me
i come from a family of retired
sorcerers/ active houngans & pennyante fortune tellers
wit 41 million spirits critturs & celestial bodies
on our side
i’ll listen to yr problems
help wit yr career yr lover yr wanderin spouse
make yr grandma’s stay in heaven more gratifyin
ease yr mother thru menopause & show yr son
how to clean his room
YES YES YES 3 wishes is all you get
scarlet ribbons for yr hair
benwa balls via hong kong
a miniature of machu picchu
all things are possible
but aint no colored magician in her right mind
gonna make you white
this is blk magic
you lookin at
& i’m fixin you up good/ fixin you up good n colored
& you gonna be colored all yr life
& you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life/ colored & love it
love it/ bein colored/
Spell #7 from Upnorth-Outwest Geechee Jibara Quik Magic Trance Manual for Technologically Stressed Third World People
From Nappy Edges by Ntozake Shange. Copyright © 1972 by Ntozake Shange. Reprinted by permission of Russell & Volkening as agents for the author. All rights reserved.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.
when she came on the stage, this Ella
there were rumors of hurricanes and
over the rooftops of concert stages
the moon turned red in the sky,
it was Ella, Ella.
queen Ella had come
and words spilled out
leaving a trail of witnesses smiling
amen—amen—a woman—a woman.
this three agèd woman
nightingales in her throat
and squads of horns came out
to greet her.
streams of violins and pianos
splashed their welcome
and our stained glass silences
our braided spaces
said who's that coming?
who's that knocking at the door?
whose voice lingers on
that stage gone mad with
perdido. perdido. perdido.
i lost my heart in toledooooooo.
whose voice is climbing
up this morning chimney
smoking with life
carrying her basket of words
a tisket a tasket
my little yellow
basket—i wrote a
letter to my mom and
on the way i dropped it—
was it red...no no no no
was it green...no no no no
was it blue...no no no no
just a little yellow
voice rescuing razor thin lyrics
from hopscotching dreams.
we first watched her navigating
an apollo stage amid high-stepping
we watched her watching us
shiny and pure woman
sugar and spice woman
her voice a nun's whisper
her voice pouring out
guitar thickened blues,
her voice a faraway horn
questioning the wind,
and she became Ella,
first lady of tongues
Ella cruising our veins
voice walking on water
crossed in prayer,
she became holy
a thousand sermons
concealed in her bones
as she raised them in a
carrying our sighs into
this voice, chasing the
this Ella-tonian voice soft
like four layers of lace.
when i die Ella
tell the whole joint
please, please don't talk
about me when i'm gone...
i remember waiting one nite for her appearance
audience impatient at the lateness
i remember it was april
and the flowers ran yellow
the sun downpoured yellow butterflies
and the day was yellow and silent
all of spring held us
in a single drop of blood.
when she appeared on stage
she became Nut arching over us
feet and hands placed on the stage
music flowing from her breasts
she swallowed the sun
sang confessions from the evening stars
made earth divulge her secrets
gave birth to skies in her song
remade the insistent air
and we became anointed found
inside her bop
bop bop dowa
bop bop doowaaa
bop bop dooooowaaaa
Lady. Lady. Lady.
be good. be good
to you. to us all
cuz we just some lonesome babes
in the woods
hey lady. sweetellalady
Lady. Lady. Lady. be gooooood
ELLA ELLA ELLALADY
From Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums. Copyright © 1998 by Sonia Sanchez. Used with the permission of Beacon Press.
A hint of gold where the moon will be;
Through the flocking clouds just a star or two;
Leaf sounds, soft and wet and hushed,
And oh! the crying want of you.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 23, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
Her blue dress is a silk train is a river
is water seeps into the cobblestone streets of my sleep, is still raining
is monsoon brocade, is winter stars stitched into puddles
is good-bye in a flooded, antique room, is good-bye in a room of crystal bowls
and crystal cups, is the ring-ting-ring of water dripping from the mouths
of crystal bowls and crystal cups, is the Mississippi River is a hallway, is leaks
like tears from windowsills of a drowned house, is windows open to waterfalls
is a bed is a small boat is a ship, is a current come to carry me in its arms
through the streets, is me floating in her dress through the streets
is only the moon sees me floating through the streets, is me in a blue dress
out to sea, is my mother is a moon out to sea.
From Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Saeed Jones. Used with permission of The Permissions Company on behalf of Coffee House Press.
Within this black hive to-night
There swarm a million bees;
Bees passing in and out the moon,
Bees escaping out the moon,
Bees returning through the moon,
Silver bees intently buzzing,
Silver honey dripping from the swarm of bees
Earth is a waxen cell of the world comb,
And I, a drone,
Lying on my back,
Getting drunk with silver honey,
Wish that I might fly out past the moon
And curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower.
This poem is in the public domain.