How I Pray in the Plague

I was rehearsing the ecstasies of starvation
for what I had to do. And have not charity,
I found my pity, desperately researching
the origins of history, from reed-built communes
by sacred lakes, turning with the first sprocketed
water-driven wheels.

            —Derek Walcott

In these silences, the bubbles of hurt are indistinguishable from the terror
that lurks in the body—the phrase, “ecstasies of starvation” will have a music
that lures us to peace, but how do I stay with a tender heart of peace and calm
when I slow in my walk in the face of an old saying that has hidden its conundrum
of theology from me—perhaps not hidden, perhaps what I mean is before
I found my pity, my charity, my love, I could slip over the conundrums,
lead us not into temptation—that imperative that has no sensible answer,
for is this the way of a father, and what kind of father must be asked not to tempt me?
And what of the mercy of temptation, and what of the lessons of temptation, 
and what of the diabolical cruelty of testing—you see why I slip over this 
with the muteness of the faith that must grow in increments of meaning?  
In these silences, the bubbles of anxiety, the hurt I cannot distinguish from terror 
is my daily state, and you teach me to pray in this way, and in this way, you teach me 
the path of being led into terror.  I will say this and let it linger, and what I mean 
is that this is the way of poetry for me, for much of what I offer, I am sure of nothing,
the knowing or the outworking, but the trust of its history of resolution—so that I will say, 
this is the origin of history, and by this, I mean this small conundrum: “Lead us not, 
lead me not, lead them not, lead them not,” And what is this were it not the way 
we know the heavy hand of God—that to pray, “Lead them not into temptation”,
is a kind of mercy, and to say, “Lead us not”, is the penitence of a sinning nation 
desperate for the lifting of the curses of contagion and plague. The subtext is the finger 
pointed at the culprit.  So that what kind of father do I tell this to?  Might I have said,
“Neville, please, lead me not into temptation”, what would it mean to tell my old man 
not to lead me into temptation? Must that not be the same as a reprimand to my father, 
a judgment on his propensity to fail me? 
                                                                Do you want answers?  You have come to the wrong
place.  I am selfish with answers. I am hoarding all answers.  Go, instead, to the prophets 
and the preachers, the soothsayers and priests, go to the pundits and the dream readers,
to the pontiffs and kings, to the presidents and mayors, to the brokers in answers. But me, 
I hoard the secrets of my calming beauty, and I walk this road, not as a maker of questions—
this would be a crude wickedness—but with the fabric of our uncertainty, a net stretched 
across the afternoon sky, this is beauty and in this I will trade until all music ends, and the air 
grows crisp as airless grace. They say that if you find honey in the stomach of the baobab tree, 
you must leave the better part for the spirit of the tree, and then share the remnant sweetness
with your neighbors. And what they say, among the reeds, what they say, in the arms of the trees, 
what they say in the shelter of the sky, that is enough for the days of terror and sorrow. Amen.

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.

Requiem

I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
mercantilistic madness.

We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,

so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants

may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those

devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp

I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.

Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.

If we don’t, who will
recall in requiem
the scattering of my tribe?

In every reggae chant
stepping proud against Babylon
I hear a blue note

of lament, sweet requiem
for the countless dead,
skanking feet among shell,

coral, rainbow adze,
webbed feet, making as if

to lift, soar, fly into new days.

Land Ho

I cannot speak the languages
spoken in that vessel,
cannot read the beads
promising salvation.

I know this only,
that when the green of land
appeared like light
after the horror of this crossing,

we straightened our backs
and faced the simplicity
of new days with flame.
I know I have the blood of survivors

coursing through my veins;
I know the lament of our loss
must warm us again and again
down in the belly of the whale,

here in the belly of the whale
where we are still searching for homes.
We sing laments so old, so true,
then straighten our backs again.

Related Poems

Prayer

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a minuscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
                                                infolding,
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water's downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers) a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
                         motion that forces change--
this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets
what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing
is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself,
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry. And if I listen
now? Listen, I was not saying anything. It was only
something I did. I could not choose words. I am free to go.
I cannot of course come back. Not to this. Never.
It is a ghost posed on my lips. Here: never.

A Butterfly in Church

What dost thou here, thou shining, sinless thing,
With many colored hues and shapely wing?
Why quit the open field and summer air
To flutter here? Thou hast no need of prayer.

’Tis meet that we, who this great structure built,
Should come to be redeemed and washed from guilt
For we this gilded edifice within
Are come, with erring hearts and stains of sin.

But thou art free from guilt as God on high;
Go, seek the blooming waste and open sky,
And leave us here our secret woes to bear
Confessionals and agonies of prayer.

When the Virus Comes

When the virus comes,
Talking heads on television screens
will tell you to abandon ship. 
To drown yourself in a sea of isolation. 
Submerge homes in lysol wipes and hand sanitizer.
Engulf body in face mask and plastic glove
until it becomes second nature.

They will tell you to turn your kitchen into a panic room,
basement into fallout shelter.
Instruct you to grab everything you can,
while you still can.
They will say
the shelves at the stores are empty,
and not realize they are also talking about you.

They will preach from the gospel of quarantine.
Shout parables of
“Thou Shalt wash thine hands.”
“For God so loved the world
he socially distanced himself
from the very people he wanted to save.”
It will make you wonder how a hero
or a government
Can rescue someone they can’t even touch.

When the virus comes,
you will kiss your lover like it’s the last time,
because maybe it is.
You will dance on timelines
like decades are stuck on the balls of your feet.
Sing like a quartet is trapped in your throat.
Laugh like this is the last time you know what joy feels like,
because maybe it is.

And today that will be more than enough.