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.

Dirt

I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I’ll have the third part.
—August Wilson

We who gave, owned nothing,
learned the value of dirt, how
a man or a woman can stand
among the unruly growth,
look far into its limits,
a place of stone and entanglements,
and suddenly understand
the meaning of a name, a deed,
a currency of personhood.
Here, where we have labored
for another man’s gain, if it is fine
to own dirt and stone, it is
fine to have a plot where
a body may be planted to rot.
We who have built only
that which others have owned
learn the ritual of trees,
the rites of fruit picked
and eaten, the pleasures
of ownership. We who
have fled with sword
at our backs know the things
they have stolen from us, and we
will walk naked and filthy
into the open field knowing
only that this piece of dirt,
this expanse of nothing,
is the earnest of our faith
in the idea of tomorrow.
We will sell our bones
for a piece of dirt,
we will build new tribes
and plant new seeds
and bury our bones in our dirt.

Steel

A truckload of fresh watermelons, 
lemon-green goodness on a slouching 
truck, cutting through so many states: 
Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland, 
into the smoke-heavy Pennsylvania cities; 
from red dirt like a land soaked 
in blood to the dark loam of this new 
land—from chaos to the orderly 
silence of the wolf country—Pittsburgh's 
dark uneven skyline, where 
we have found shelter 
while the crippled leader 
waits to promise healing 
for a nation starving 
on itself. Two men, dusty
from the Parchman Farm, 
their eyes still hungry 
with dreams, laugh bitter 
laughs, carrying the iron 
of purpose in them. Hear 
the engine clunking, hear 
the steel of a new century 
creaking. There is blood 
in the sky—at dawn, the city 
takes them in like a woman. 
Inside them all memory 
becomes the fiction of survival—
here the dead have hands 
that can caress and heal, 
hands that can push a living 
body into a grave, hold it there, 
and the living get to sing it. 
This is a nation of young men, 
dark with the legacies 
of brokenness, men who know 
that life is short, that the world 
brings blood, that peace 
is a night of quiet repose 
while the dogs howl in the woods, 
men who know the comfort 
of steel, cold as mist at dawn, 
pure burnished steel.