If I Am Alive To
A second death in as many days and I succeed at being
Strong and contained, until the tweet
Where one young brother says I’m not scared of dying,
I’m scared of breaking my mother’s heart. I am flesh
Two rooms down the hall from my mother’s flesh
Holding in my hands the news which is not new and today, at last, I understand
How primal and intelligent her need
To be done with this—
Our sorrow, our joy, anything at all thought ours—
To be done with the almost unavoidable assertion
Of a self she refused
To let her body take on—and to be done
Permanently, by making
A useful choice, through a man made useful by her choosing,
A man of Irish-Scandinavian stock (the only criteria,
I have wondered, in angrier moments), so that
Her boys, my brothers and I, or at least our bodies
Emerged from hers looking Spanish, maybe Greek or Italian.
Three boys, each passing
Closer to her one True North.
When she tells me not to put forward that I am Black, she is saying I love you.
She is saying I want you to live. I see now. When she told my brother she wished
He’d just find a nice blonde girl and settle down, I took her by the face
And, staring into her even-keeled nonchalance,
Told her I love you and you are crazy. Today
I see: I am flesh, I am free
To inhabit my life: to stand, to sit, to breathe, to play tag
Or with a toy gun, to walk away, or to run, to put my hands up, to ask why.
Today on a walk I took to release
How it felt to be shut out—this time,
By the editor of the African diasporic journal
Who asked not me but someone who didn’t know me
Was I Black—
I cross 112th and Amsterdam and suddenly
Am 20 years-old again,
Drunk, out-of-control in pain without knowing
Why, trying to jump a taxi
Because I’d spent my money on booze, and the cop
Whose car pulled into the crosswalk to block me,
To stop me as I ran, gets out and says to me
If you don’t pay the man, I’ll arrest you.
I was underage. I jumped a taxi. I was incoherent and angry.
I did not have the money to pay the man. I was not arrested.
Turning from the news, I complain now to a friend
I don’t know why we (all of us) should want to live—
It’s all so futile and banal. It’s all so pointless, even when it’s good—
As my mother rests inside her safe and dusty room
Next to the man she crossed an ocean to find.
I have thought her wrong
To think that we would need saving. But what do I know
Of having to choose one violence over another? Asleep now
She rests inside her flesh, my father close beside her
On his back, his forearm across his eyes,
He who chose her, too,
And over his own family, he knew to tell us, having learned early
That you must cross whatever line you have to cross.
Copyright © 2018 by Charif Shanahan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 24, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.