The Body Remembers

Yusef Komunyakaa - 1947-
I stood on one foot for three minutes & didn’t tilt
the scales. Do you remember how quickly
 
we scrambled up an oak leaning out over the creek,
how easy to trust the water to break
 
our glorious leaps? The body remembers
every wish one lives for or doesn’t, or even horror.
 
Our dance was a rally in sunny leaves, then quick
as anything, Johnny Dickson was up opening
 
his arms wide in the tallest oak, waving
to the sky, & in the flick of an eye
 
he was a buffalo fish gigged, pleading
for help, voiceless. Bigger & stronger,
 
he knew every turn in the creek past his back door,
but now he was cooing like a brown dove
 
in a trap of twigs. A water-honed spear
of kindling jutted up, as if it were the point
 
of our folly & humbug on a Sunday afternoon, right?
Five of us carried him home through the thicket,
 
our feet cutting a new path, running in sleep
years later. We were young as condom-balloons
 
flowering crabapple trees in double bloom
& had a world of baleful hope & breath.
 
Does Johnny run fingers over the thick welt
on his belly, days we were still invincible?
 
Sometimes I spend half a day feeling for bones
in my body, humming a half-forgotten
 
ballad on a park bench a long ways from home.
The body remembers the berry bushes
 
heavy with sweetness shivering in a lonely woods,
but I doubt it knows words live longer
 
than clay & spit of flesh, as rock-bottom love.
Is it easier to remember pleasure
 
or does hurt ease truest hunger?
That summer, rocking back & forth, uprooting
 
what’s to come, the shadow of the tree
weighed as much as a man.

More by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Whistle

1

The seven o'clock whistle
Made the morning air fulvous
With a metallic syncopation,
A key to a door in the sky---opening
& closing flesh.  The melody
Men & women built lives around,
Sonorous as the queen bee's fat
Hum drawing workers from flowers,
Back to the colonized heart.
A titanous puff of steam rose
From the dragon trapped below
Iron, bricks, & wood.
The whole black machine 
Shuddered: blue jays & redbirds
Wove light through leaves
& something dead under the foundation
Brought worms to life.
Men capped their thermoses,
Switched off Loretta Lynn,
& slid from trucks & cars.
The rip saws throttled
& swung out over logs
On conveyer belts.
Daddy lifted the tongs
To his right shoulder . . . a winch
Uncoiled the steel cable
From its oily scrotum;
He waved to the winchman
& iron teeth bit into the pine.
Yellow forklifts darted 
With lumber to boxcars
Marked for distant cities.
At noon, Daddy would walk
Across the field of goldenrod
& mustard weeds, the pollen
Bright & sullen on his overalls.
He'd eat on our screened-in
Back porch---red beans & rice
With hamhocks & cornbread.
Lemonade & peach Jello.

The one o'clock bleat
Burned sweat & salt into afternoon
& the wheels within wheels
Unlocked again, pulling rough boards
Into the plane's pneumatic grip.
Wild geese moved like a wedge
Between sky & sagebrush,
As Daddy pulled the cable
To the edge of the millpond
& sleepwalked cypress logs.
The day turned on its axle
& pyramids of russet sawdust
Formed under corrugated 
Blowpipes fifty feet high.
The five o'clock whistle 
Bellowed like a bull, controlling
Clocks on kitchen walls;
Women dabbed loud perfume
Behind their ears & set tables
Covered with flowered oilcloth.

2

When my father was kicked by the foreman,
He booted him back,
& his dreams slouched into an aftershock
Of dark women whispering
To each other.  Like petals of a black rose
In one of Busby Berkeley's
Oscillating dances in a broken room.  Shadows,
Runagates & Marys.
The steel-gray evening was a canvas
Zigzagged with questions
Curling up from smokestacks, as dusky birds
Brushed blues into a montage
Traced back to L'Amistad & the psychosis
Behind Birth of a Nation.
With eyes against glass & ears to diaphanous doors,
I heard a cornered prayer.

Car lights rubbed against our windows,
Ravenous as snow wolves.
A brick fell into the livingroom like a black body,
& a riot of drunk curses
Left the gladioli & zinnias
Maimed.  Double dares
Took root in night soil.
The whistle boiled
Gutbucket underneath silence
& burned with wrath.
But by then Daddy was with Uncle James
Outside The Crossroad,
Their calloused fingers caressing the .38
On the seat of the pickup;
Maybe it was the pine-scented moonglow
That made him look so young
& faceless, wearing his mother's powder blue
Sunday dress & veiled hat.

Facing It

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears. 
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's 
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

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The Children of Beslan (To My Children)

Translated from the Georgian by Mary Childs

Today is the First of September and
As natural,
As the sun’s setting and rising,
The flowers’ budding and wilting, 
The healing of open wounds,
And death. 
This isn’t a school bell ringing, 
It’s the bells of a church.
The mothers woke us up from our summer games,
But the fathers took our hands more sternly and
more proudly than never before. 
The fathers left work for the market,
Carrying heavy bags and
All kinds of thoughts and rubbish  
in their heads.
We left toys with wilted smiles on the beds,
Little sisters and brothers in the windows,
Grandmothers who had combed our hair and
Crossed us as we were leaving home,
To meet with God, or our first teachers.  
Here, our empty, silent notebooks,
Here, our unopened books and flat, inanimate illustrations,
The red pens, which retain their strictness, but can’t express it,
A roster, read from the grade book with no answers,
Desks without purpose and
The boards, painted black,
On which is written our first, short history.
Here, our flowers for you, who
Were supposed to open the door of life’s wisdom for us,
But the flowers have chosen a better fate. 
Again, light backpacks
Are hanging like crosses upon our weak shoulders and
White shirts—
Like sacrificial lambs, we make our way to the last class.
Don’t look at the road so often,
We won’t return from here,
We continued our summer games and
We are hiding behind September first.