Diabolic

- 1954-
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
            —Phillis Wheatley

What they say they are
And what they actually do
Is what Phillis overhears.
It’s like she isn’t there.
It’s like she’s a ghost, at arm’s length, hearing
The living curse out the dead—
Which, she’s been led to believe
No decent person does in a church.

How they say they love her
And how they look at her
Is what Phillis observes;
Like she’s the hole in the pocket
After the money rolls out.

God loves everybody—even the sinner,
(they say)
Even a mangy hound can rely
On a scrap of meat, scraped off the plate
(they say).

What they testify
And what they whisper in earshot
Is as dark as her skin, whistled from opposite sides
Of a mouth.

Is she the bible’s fine print?

I'm a Fool to Love You

Some folks will tell you the blues is a woman,
Some type of supernatural creature.
My mother would tell you, if she could,
About her life with my father,
A strange and sometimes cruel gentleman.
She would tell you about the choices
A young black woman faces.
Is falling in with some man
A deal with the devil
In blue terms, the tongue we use
When we don't want nuance
To get in the way,
When we need to talk straight.
My mother chooses my father
After choosing a man
Who was, as we sing it,
Of no account.
This man made my father look good,
That's how bad it was.
He made my father seem like an island
In the middle of a stormy sea,
He made my father look like a rock.
And is the blues the moment you realize
You exist in a stacked deck,
You look in a mirror at your young face,
The face my sister carries,
And you know it's the only leverage
You've got.
Does this create a hurt that whispers
How you going to do?
Is the blues the moment
You shrug your shoulders
And agree, a girl without money
Is nothing, dust
To be pushed around by any old breeze.
Compared to this,
My father seems, briefly,
To be a fire escape.
This is the way the blues works
Its sorry wonders,
Makes trouble look like
A feather bed,
Makes the wrong man's kisses 
A healing.

Manchild

 for bell hooks

A warning one white friend hisses
To the one standing nearest to me
At an Upper West Side newsstand.
As if my ears
Could not cradle human speech.

This is the birth of a regret:
My surprise of the woman on my right
As I reach to buy a paper.
How her
Where? becomes an Oh.
How they grin,
I am a close call, how they grin,
Pickpocket my ease,
How they
Grin, then push off down the street.
Now I have the rest of Saturday.

Who will touch my hand,
Who will take my quarters,
These clots of syntax
Growing cold in the blush of my palm?

Sherbet

The problem here is that
This isn’t pretty, the
Sort of thing that

Can easily be dealt with
With words. After
All it’s

A horror story to sit,
A black man with
A white wife in

The middle of a hot
Sunday afternoon in
The Jefferson Hotel in

Richmond, Va., and wait
Like a criminal for service
From a young white waitress

Who has decided that
This looks like something
She doesn’t want

To be a part of. What poetry
Could describe the
Perfect angle of

This woman’s back as
She walks, just so,
Mapping the room off

Like the end of a
Border dispute, which
Metaphor could turn

The room more perfectly
Into a group of
Islands? And when

The manager finally
Arrives, what language
Do I use

To translate the nervous
Eye motions, the yawning
Afternoon silence, the

Prayer beneath
His simple inquiries,
The sherbet which

He then brings to the table personally,
Just to be certain
The doubt

Stays on our side
Of the fence? What do
We call the rich,

Sweet taste of
Frozen oranges in
This context? What do

We call a weight that
Doesn’t fingerprint,
Won’t shift,

And can’t explode?

Related Poems

On Being Brought from Africa to America

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Chorus of the Mothers-Griot

for Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784)




                                [amnesiac wood]

[nostrils of girls]	        [who was bought]	        [uncle’s hand]
[guts on the air]	        [who was sold]		[defeated man]
[history’s charnel]	        [i say] 	                [trader’s silver]

                                [sailing knot to knot]

[naked in the corner]	[door of no return]	[sing the mutiny]
[in the slave house]	[sniff bougainvillea]	[who stands ashamed]
[i say]		 	[ready dawn’s kill]	        [naked in the corner]

                                [jealous sharks]

[i shall]			[who did]		        [i say]
[they did]		        [i’m here]		        [my name]
[who shall]		        [i say]		        [yes here]

                                [on the battlefield] 

[call woman]		[call america]		[call revolution]
[call the brother]	        [call myth]                  [i say] 
[call the auction]	        [call africa]		        [call revolution]

                                [in God’s name]

[is this called]		[is my mother]		[is my kin]
[i say]			[is this called]		[is some land]
[is my mother]		[and what] 		        [is this called]





	after Lucille Clifton

American Sonnet (10)

after Lowell

our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row
      and boll. fenced others'
gardens with bones of lovers. embarking 
      from Africa in chains
reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah's light 
      planted here the bitter
seed of blight and here eternal torches mark  
      the shame of Moloch's mansions 
built in slavery's name. our hungered eyes
      do see/refuse the dark
illuminate the blood-soaked steps of each  
      historic gain. a yearning
yearning to avenge the raping of the womb 
      from which we spring