Bear Witness

   after Carrie Mae Weems’s Roaming series

Before I knew
how to fill my onyx body
with slick measures,

dip every curve
in my skin with dark sway,
I needed a picture.

Before me stood
a long black dress I called Woman—
you stand opaque

with your back to me,
a statue of witness,
the door of Yes—

I can Return
to the monument
of your silhouette

to find my longest muscle.
We both stare down
the ocean to stillness.

O, Carrie—
what are you trying
to tell me here?

I’ve been standing by water 
my whole damn life
trying to get saved.

More by Tiana Clark

800 Days: Libation

after not wanting to watch “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” on Spike TV

It rained inside me
it is raining inside my neck
the rain falls in sheets inside long sheets inside
all the rain is falling inside collapsing spit
I don’t want to watch another black man die
today or know the story of how he died today
or how he was thrown away or how he ended up
I don’t want to study the rain from inside
the house or overhear wild rain swell & thicken
slap the roof with wet words       & Kalief 
who was there when you stopped
being & who was there when you were alone
& beyond yourself     how
the water around you from the island around you
might have sounded like a chorus    who was there
who was there      who was there  & now everyone
is watching your life from inside but I’m afraid to watch
them beat you    watch torture throbbing dry & long
with ache & blue-black bruising                so I don’t
& another black body is blown out      smoking wick
the lone wisp of a life lingers smelling burnt & gone
how rain wraps round a tornado is a type of sorrow
because no one knows how to fathom damage inside
someone’s eyes could be the weather just after or before
a storm         calm & clear but still bleaker inside the black
parts of the pupils the holes smooth black holes in the eyes
as they left you in the hole with no rain      & I’m emptying
a waterfall shouting                       KALIEF
I want you to be undead & not alone      lonely in the ground  
again     I want I want (the “I” wants so much) how it greeds 
like a fist      of pounding rain on your body bleating broke
but what I want doesn’t matter what I want are rare blossoms
for the dead      because you’re gone & your mother is gone
all because someone said you stole a backpack meaning
your body was made a forgotten altar your body made bodiless
kept pushing back as your trial kept pushing back & back &
black matter moves backwards in time meaning    Kalief matters
in the past tense even though the space around your life didn’t
matter to them   or them   or them    like the space that scatters
& navigates around the circumference of raindrops is never wet
& the braided distance between you & me  is dry & long
like time is rainless with a tight & loaded lungful blowing 800
candles out for the 800 days in solitary your brain behind bars
fades your body in confinement your chest caged alone
your body alone   all    I     hear         is your name falling
& beating    Kalief      Kalief      Kalief Kalief Kalief
this is such a poor offering but I am pouring it on the ground
like good rain & whatever softens the earth is your name
whatever might grow from that darkening bright spot is your name
lapping little lakes of creation turning mud in your name
whatever might be fed from the liquid raining inside me
whatever might be loosened from the muck & the dark
rum pouring from my bottle    & Kalief    your name     is drizzling
a type of grief upon my mouth like mist as it reigns
inside me it is raining inside my body the rain falls in sheets
inside all the rain is untangled & not touching
who touched you with tenderness falling inside   
                                                                                          & Kalief  
what is there to say
after so much rain?

                                  The ground is swollen with your name…

Conversation with Phillis Wheatley #2

Tell me about your baptism she asked.

I rose out of the water, a caught fish—slippery,
gaping for breath, brand new with righteousness.

I walked down to the frothing whirlpool,
Pastor Lonnie—a white man in a white robe,

extended his hands and helped me down the steps.
The congregation watched as I answered his questions:

Yes. Yes. Yes. Jacuzzi-warm water gurgled and spun
as his white robe spread around my little circumference,

holy creamer. He put his hand on my nose, pinched
my breath. I did not close my eyes as he buried me

under the water—under the water I heard muffled
shouting, under the water I saw Pastor Lonnie's face

ripple in thirds. He tipped my body back, lifted me up
and out from the wet coffin to the defeaning resound

of clapping and yelling from the church. My hair back
to curls, my face like the face of my birth when I was

cut from my mother—terrified and ready to scream.

Conversation with Phillis Wheatley #14

recovered letter from Obour Tanner

 

To Phillis Wheatley in Boston [Massachusetts]
                                                                                        New Port, February 6th, 1772
Dear Sister,

I'm a savage. There is a savage-me inside, wild-thick as sin, so much, my Soul
is clabbered, but there is a Change, I sense, inside my curdled mess, Christ hung

and crucified in me, daily, a Saving Change. The ship. Do you feel the ship, pitching,
sometimes, inside the skin under your skin  -chanting-    as the Atlantic whispered,

lulling us, fluid as hymn and semen, in wet languages we couldn't understand?
                                                                                                  Remember the ships

that brought us over the bent world. Let us praise these wooden beasts that saved
the evil beast of us. Do you remember the ship, Phillis, do you remember rocking...

the rocking black milk, like I do? Remember the bowels from the reek
inside the deathly ship? There was nothing in us to recommend us to God,

except the bowels of divine love. Remember inky black, starless black,
blue-black with moaning, smelled like salt and salvation: God's skin hammered

with long nails like our breath, bleeding.

                                      But we converted—we have been saved by a Saving
Change: my Heart is a true snow-white-snow Heart, Of true Holiness, pure

as buttermilk, evangelical as buttermilk. But Repentance can save our people
from a land of seeming Darkness, and where the divine Light of revelation

(being cloaked) is as Darkness. What was darker than the bowels of that ship
you were named after, do you remember Phillis, how black, black is?

The mold? Our sin, the trigger—that mist was on everything, fuzzing our damp
little bodies with spores, encircling the air, emerald rust crawled and blossomed

inside our young lungs—it coughs and rackets the bright blood from us, like a claw
scraping, no, like soft applause from the balcony for the swarthy to sit upon

during church, like when we met, I was a dozen broken roses, bruised as velvet,
                                                             English and reaching desire       for you,

across        the pews, across          the vast|empty spaces, where two slaves
       (who could read and write) could touch—each other—there, as women

and call it: Praise.

Let us marvel at the Love and Grace that bought
                                                                                     and brought us here.     Amen.

 

Your very humble servant and friend,

Obour Tanner