I have all of these
lily plants but not you,
nor peace.

How they ease
my breathing yet
trouble my mind,
symbols
of your soaring
too high to see
or reach,
beauty clanging
like bells
out of tune, time’s
up.         Leaves

so shiny & perfect
they look fake,
but a few brown ones
barely clinging &
curled in on themselves—
less supple, less everything
like me, let me know
they are real.

They are real. Too
real. Lord knows
you were the most real
one can ever be & now
you are really gone!

Your need is over,
but your giving goes on
& on.     Heaven is shedding
desire’s heavy robes, pure
devotion to love’s
bare essence.    You, flowered
& shiny in what’s left
of my heart, teaching me
to rally. No matter
how it may appear,
I’m not rootless.

Today & tomorrow
& the day after that,
you remain evergreen
& ours
somewhere not here,
as my tears land
in potted soil exiled
from its mother, Earth,
like me.

Mercy Beach

Stony trails of jagged beauty rise
like stretch marks streaking sand-hips.
All the Earth has borne beguiles us
& battered bodies build our acres.

Babes that sleep in hewn rock cradles
learn to bear the hardness coming.
Tough grace forged in tender bones—
may this serve & bless them well.

They grow & break grief into islands
of sun-baked stone submerged in salt
kisses, worn down by the ocean's ardor
relentless as any strong loving.

May they find caresses that abolish pain.
Like Earth, they brandish wounds of gold!
 

Perfect Form

North Charleston, South Carolina, April 4, 2015

Walter Scott must have been a track athlete
before serving his country, having children:

his knees were high, elbows bent
at 90 degrees as his arms pumped
close to his sides, back straight and head up
as each foot landed in front of the other.
Too much majesty in his last strides.

So much depends on instinct, ingrained
legacies and American pastimes.
Relays where everyone on the team wins
remain a dream. Olympic arrogance,
black men chased for sport—
heat after heat
of longstanding, savage races
that always finish the same way.

My guess is Walter Scott ran distances
and sprinted, whatever his life events
required. Years of training and technique
are not forgotten, even at 50. Even after being
tased out of his right mind. Even in peril
the body remembers what it has been
taught, keeping perfect form
during his final dash.


Shared Plight

Bound to whims,
bred solely for
circuses of desire.
To hell with savannahs,
towns like Rosewood.

Domestics or domesticated,
one name or surnamed, creatures
the dominant ones can’t live without
would truly flourish
without such devious love,
golden corrals.

Harnessed. Muzzled.
Stocks and bonds. Chains
and whips held by hand. 
Ota Benga in a Bronx cage,
Saartjie Baartman on display—
funds sent to her village
didn’t make it okay. Harambe,
Tamir, Cecil, Freddie—names
of the hunted, captives
bleed together. The captors
beasts to all but themselves
and their own.

Two endangered beings in a moat
stare into each other's eyes.

Slower than light, mercy
must not survive entry
into our atmosphere, never
reaching those who lose
unbridled lives
long before they die
in this world of zoos
and conquerors who treat
earthlings like aliens.

Related Poems

Elegy for my husband

Bruce Derricotte, June 22, 1928 - June 21, 2011
What was there is no longer there:
Not the blood running its wires of flame through the whole length
Not the memories, the texts written in the language of the flat hills
No, not the memories, the porch swing and the father crying
The genteel and elegant aunt bleeding out on the highway
(Too black for the white ambulance to pick up)
Who had sent back lacquered plates from China
Who had given away her best ivory comb that one time she was angry
Not the muscles, the ones the white girls longed to touch
But must not (for your mother warned
You would be lynched in that all-white Ohio town you grew up in)
Not that same town where you were the only, the one good black boy
All that is gone
Not the muscles running, the baseball flying into your mitt
Not the hand that laid itself over my heart and saved me 
Not the eyes that held the long gold tunnel I believed in 
Not the restrained hand in love and in anger
Not the holding back
Not the taut holding

 

My Mother and Lucille Clifton Have Tea

When I get to where I’m going
I want the death of my children explained to me.

                                                       —Lucille Clifton

They meet over tea and potato chips.
Brown and buttermilk women,
hipped and hardened,
legs uncrossed but proper
still in their smiles;
smiles that carry a sadness in faint creases.
A sadness they will never be without.

One asks the other,
“What do they call a woman who has lost a child?”

The other sighs between sips of lukewarm tea.
There is no name for us.

“No name? But there has to be a name for us.
We must have something to call ourselves.”

Surely, history by now and all the women
who carry their babies’ ghosts on their backs,
mothers who wake up screaming,
women wide awake in their nightmares,
mothers still expected to be mothers and human,
women who stand under hot showers weeping,
mothers who wish they could drown standing up,
women who can still smell them—hear them,
the scent and symphony of their children,
deep down in the good earth.

“Surely, history has not forgotten to name us?”

No woman wants to bear
whatever could be the name for this grief.
Even if she must bear the grief for all her days,
it would be far too painful to be called by that name.

“I’ve lost two, you know.”
Me too.
“I was angry at God, you know.”
Me too.
“I stopped praying but only for a little while,
and then I had no choice. I had to pray again.
I had to call out to something that was no longer there.
I had to believe God knew where it was.”

“I fear death no longer. It has taken everything.
But should I be? Should I be afraid of what death has taken?
That it took and left no name?”

The other who sighs between sips of lukewarm tea
leans over and kisses the cheek of the one still with questions.
She whispers…

No, you don’t have to be afraid.
Death is no more scary than the lives we have lived
without our babies, bound to this grief
with no name.

Isabell*

Like any love should be,
hers was touch and never leave.
Some arguments and tears with Antoney,
her husband, but no freedom.
They were tied, a curt blessing
in that era of dark skin and kin.
Separations would occur soon enough,
but they had to band together,
this woman and her man who might
have come on a ship with eighteen others.
Isabell cooked for him from flesh
he trapped or caught.
They might have looked at the entrails
of his prey to decipher
what the day had been,
back home in Africa.
What would the drums say?
Was it a feast time?
Was their village in the same spot?
When their son was born, Isabell
probably kept him away
from others for several days.
That night, when the necessary
seclusion was done, Antoney
would have shaved the baby’s
head and spat in his ear.
Tapped a foot on the floor,
told an unforgotten story.
And then, Isabell put the baby
to her breast and sang,
Your name is William here,
but Mother calls you
something else,
something old in secret.

 


*The first recorded intact African family in seventeenth-century Virginia were three enslaved servants of one Captain William Tucker: Antoney, Isabell, and “William theire Child Baptised.”