I Have This Way of Being

Jamaal May

I have this, and this isn’t a mouth
           full of the names of odd flowers

I’ve grown in secret.
           I know none of these by name

but have this garden now,
           and pastel somethings bloom

near the others and others.
           I have this trowel, these overalls,

this ridiculous hat now.
           This isn’t a lung full of air.

Not a fist full of weeds that rise
           yellow then white then windswept.

This is little more than a way
           to kneel and fill gloves with sweat,

so that the trowel in my hand
           will have something to push against,

rather, something to push
           against that it knows will bend

and give and return as sprout
           and petal and sepal and bloom.
 

More by Jamaal May

Pomegranate Means Grenade

The heart trembles like a herd of horses.
—Jontae McCrory, age 11

Hold a pomegranate in your palm,
imagine ways to split it, think of the breaking
skin as shrapnel. Remember granada
means pomegranate and granada
means grenade because grenade
takes its name from the fruit;
identify war by what it takes away
from fecund orchards. Jontae,
there will always be one like you:
a child who gets the picked over box
with mostly black crayons. One who wonders
what beautiful has to do with beauty, as he darkens
a sun in the corner of every page,
constructs a house from ashen lines,
sketches stick figures lying face down-
I know how often red is the only color
left to reach for. I fear for you.
You are writing a stampede
into my chest, the same anxiety that shudders
me when I push past marines in high school
hallways, moments after video footage
of young men dropping from helicopters
in night vision goggles. I want you to see in the dark
without covering your face and carry verse
as countermeasure to recruitment videos
and remember the cranes buried inside the poems
painted on banners that hung in Tiananmen Square—
remember because Huang Xiang was exiled
for these. Remember because the poet Huang Xiang
was exiled for this: the calligraphy of revolt.
Always know that you will stand nameless
in front of a tank, always know you will not stand
alone, but there will always be those
who would rather see you pull a pin
from a grenade than pull a pen
from your backpack. Jontae,
they are afraid.

A Brief History of Hostility

In the beginning
there was the war.

The war said let there be war
and there was war.

The war said let there be peace
and there was war.

The people said music and rain
evaporating against fire in the brush
was a kind of music
and so was the beast.

The beast that roared
or bleated when brought down
was silent when skinned
but loud after the skin
was pulled taut over wood
and the people said music
and the thump thump
thump said drum.
Someone said
war drum. The drum said war
is coming to meet you in the field.
The field said war
tastes like copper,
said give us some more, said look
at the wild flowers our war plants
in a grove and grows
just for us.

 

Outside sheets are pulling
this way and that.

Fields are smoke,
smoke is air.

We wait for fingers to be bent
knuckle to knuckle,

the porch overrun
with rope and shotgun

but the hounds don’t show.
We beat the drum and sing

like there’s nothing outside
but rust-colored clay and fields

of wild flowers growing
farther than we can walk.

Torches may come like fox paws
to steal away what we plant,

but with our bodies bound
by the skin, my arc to his curve,

we are stalks that will bend
and bend and bend…

fire for heat
fire for light
fire for casting figures on a dungeon wall

fire for teaching shadows to writhe
fire for keeping beasts at bay
fire to give them back to the earth

fire for the siege
fire to singe
fire to roast
fire to fuse rubber soles to collapsed crossbeams
fire for Gehenna

fire for Dante
fire for Fallujah
fire for readied aim

fire in the forge that folds steel like a flag
fire to curl worms like cigarette ash
fire to give them back to the earth

fire for ancient reasons: to call down rain
fire to catch it and turn it into steam
fire for churches
fire for a stockpile of books
fire for a bible-black cloak tied to a stake

fire for smoke signals
fire to shape gun muzzle and magazine
fire to leap from the gut of a furnace
fire for Hephaestus
fire for pyres’ sake
fire licking the toes of a quiet brown man
fire for his home
fire for her flag
fire for this sand, to coax it into glass

fire to cure mirrors
fire to cure leeches
Fire to compose a nocturne of cinders

fire for the trash cans illuminating streets
fire for fuel
fire for fields
fire for the field hand’s fourth death

fire to make a cross visible for several yards
fire from the dragon’s mouth
fire for smoking out tangos
fire to stoke like rage and fill the sky with human remains
fire to give them back to the earth
fire to make twine fall from bound wrists
fire to mark them all and bubble black
any flesh it touches as it frees

 

They took the light from our eyes. Possessive.
Took the moisture from our throats. My arms,
my lips, my sternum, sucked dry, and
lovers of autumn say, Look, here is beauty.
Tallness only made me an obvious target made of
off-kilter limbs. I’d fall either way. I should get a
to-the-death tattoo or metal ribbon of some sort.
War took our prayers like nothing else can,
left us dumber than remote drones. Make
me a loyal soldier and I’ll make you a
lamenting so thick, metallic, so tank-tread-hard.

Now make tomorrow a gate shaped like a man.
I can’t promise, when it’s time, I won’t hesitate,
cannot say I won’t forget to return in fall and
guess the names of the leaves before they change.

 

The war said bring us your dead
and we died. The people said music
and bending flower, so we sang ballads

in the aisles of churches and fruit markets.
The requiem was everywhere: a comet’s tail
disappearing into the atmosphere,

the wide mouths of the bereft men that have sung…
On currents of air, seeds were carried
as the processional carried us

through the streets of a forgetting city,
between the cold iron of gates.
The field said soil is rich wherever we fall.

Aren’t graveyards and battlefields
our most efficient gardens?
Journeys begin there too if the flowers are taken

into account, and shouldn’t we always
take the flowers into account? Bring them to us.
We’ll come back to you. Peace will come to you

as a rosewood-colored road paver
in your grandmother’s town, as a trench
scraped into canvas, as a violin bow, a shovel,

an easel, a brushstroke that covers
burial mounds in grass. And love, you say,
is a constant blade, a trowel that plants

and uproots, and tomorrow
will be a tornado, you say. Then war,
a sick wind, will come to part the air,

straighten your suit,
and place fresh flowers
on all our muddy graves.

Related Poems

The Wall Hanging I Never Noticed

I never noticed before
How the red flowers hang from the blue branches
I never noticed before the light in this room
I never noticed the way the air is cool again
I never noticed anything but you
But you but you
So that I couldn’t sleep
I never noticed what was anything but you
Until I noticed you
And could not help it
Until I noticed you I could not help it
Until you made the red flowers alive again
Until the blue branches
The lemons you loved, but also the way you loved me, too
Until all of this I never noticed you
But once I did
I never minded noticing
I never stopped noticing
Until I noticed you
I never stopped noticing
Until you, I never stopped