The news comes like a stone:
cancer devoured his upful locks
and a sister collected the clumps
of carefully nurtured holiness
in a plastic bag to be matted
into a wig like a crown for the
bald Natty Dread in his casket.

He fell so low and the chemo seemed
like treachery. It all turned
worthless, this fighting, this
scramble for a cure, a way out;
this confession of mortality:

O Jah, O Jah, why has thou
forsaken thy son? O Jah,

the veil is black like this night,
black like the treacherous road;

when it wet it slippery,
see me sliding, tumbling down;

see how this sickness make my soul
black as jet, caution, caution,

and my brothers, all they can say
is walk, walk, walk, walk, walk,

like the bubbling syncopations
of the synthesizer’s left-hand jumps.

But who will walk with me,
who will carry the lamp on this path,

whose breathing will reassure me
of a company waiting on the other side?

My brethren will forsake me,
I walk into so many dark places
while I wait for the coming of light.

Reggae rides the airwaves
and this island sound dark
for the passing of a song.

More by Kwame Dawes

Talk

            For August Wilson

No one quarrels here, no one has learned
the yell of discontent—instead, here in Sumter
we learn to grow silent, build a stone
of resolve, learn to nod, learn to close
in the flame of shame and anger
in our hearts, learn to petrify it so,
and the more we quiet our ire,
the heavier the stone; this alchemy
of concrete in the vein, the sludge
of affront, until even that will calcify
and the heart, at last, will stop,
unassailable, unmovable, adamant.

Find me a man who will stand
on a blasted hill and shout,
find me a woman who will break   
into shouts, who will let loose
a river of lament, find the howl
of the spirit, teach us the tongues
of the angry so that our blood,
my pulse—our hearts flow
with the warm healing of anger.

You, August, have carried in your belly
every song of affront your characters
have spoken, and maybe you waited
too long to howl against the night,
but each evening on some wooden
stage, these men and women,
learn to sing songs lost for centuries,
learn the healing of talk, the calming
of quarrel, the music of contention,
and in this cacophonic chorus,
we find the ritual of living.

A Way of Seeing

It all comes from this dark dirt,
memory as casual as a laborer.

Remembrances of ancestors
kept in trinkets, tiny remains

that would madden anthropologists
with their namelessness.

No records, just smells of stories
passing through most tenuous links,

trusting in the birthing of seed from seed;
this calabash bowl of Great-grand

Martha, born a slave’s child;
this bundle of socks, unused

thick woolen things for the snow—
he died, Uncle Felix, before the ship

pushed off the Kingston wharf,
nosing for winter, for London.

He never used the socks, just
had them buried with him.

So, sometimes forgetting the panorama
these poems focus like a tunnel,

to a way of seeing time past,
a way of seeing the dead.

Trickster III

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.