The Lost Woods as Elegy for Black Childhood

Derrick Austin

There used to be no one here,
where cypresses and oaks play
shadow puppets on sawgrass.

You heard the music before
I did: tambourines, pan pipes.
Remember how I woke clean

to meet you each morning?
The dew and the dust?
Remember how you’d catch me

as I fell from trees? Someone
heard and hurt us. I’m Black-Eyed
Pea. You’re just Skull Kid.

We wanted our genius to last.
We never wanted chalkboards
or snow. We never came home

before the streetlights buzzed.
All we do is dance in leaves.
Cackle and Dreaming, we call it.

Our mothers call it grief.

More by Derrick Austin

Taking My Father and Brother to The Frick

Disembark the Turners seem to say,
those starburst barges glowing in the dusk,
but I can’t read old Rembrandt,
his guarded eyes are jewels, like black men.
Even the loaned, marble busts
of kings and soldiers fail to arrest you.
It’s nearly closing time. The elderly linger,
rapt. Who has looked at either of you lately
with such tenderness?
                                      Entering the narrow hall,
I ignore my favorite portraits, their ruffles
and bodices, carnations and powder puffs,
afraid to share my joy with you,
yet your bearing in this space—the procession
of your shoulders, the crowns of your heads—
makes them sing anew.
                                      You are both good men. 
Walk into the Fragonard Room. You both seem bored still.
It’s fine. Perhaps we can progress like these panels,
slowly and without words, here—the city
where I first knew men in the dark—
in this gold and feminine room.

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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.