Like a tree, he interprets light.
Papa Bois, old woodsman, come see
how this golden son paints your domain—
sycamore’s plainsong, pine’s keen sigh,
aspen’s conspiring laughter—be
a witness to his legerdemain.
When branches thrash outside your window
you sometimes believe you’re the storm
that moves them, displaced hurricane.
You tell no one. That’s nothing new.
The South taught you early to conform,
to wear a mask that’s become urbane.
From star to star the mental optics rove.
If only your hard labor conjured love.
Copyright © 2023 by Arlene Keizer. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 7, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.
“‘Canopy’ is part of a cycle of poems about the African American painter Beauford Delaney. Throughout the collection, I imagine Papa Bois, a Caribbean mythological figure, as a deity worthy of Delaney’s spiritual quest. Iconic twentieth-century sonnets written by Delaney’s contemporaries floated through my mind as I wrote: Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems about Black soldiers, Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays,’ and Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent.’ I wanted to know what would happen if I used the formal properties of American sonnets that explore romantic, familial, and communal love to address the complexities of Delaney’s life as a Black, gay male artist.”