Louisa County Patrol Claims, 1770–1863

I pry open the files, still packed
        with liquor & strange brine.

Midnight seeps from the cracks
        slow pulp of arithmetic. Four or five

or six at a time, the white men draw
        along the Gordonsville Road, on foot

or on horseback, clustered close—
        each man counting up his hours, the knife

of each man’s tongue at the hinge
        of his own mouth. For ninety-three years

& every time I slip away to read
        those white men line the roadway

secreting themselves in the night air
        feeding & breathing in their private

column. Why belly up to their pay stubs
        scraping my teeth on the chipped flat

of each page? This dim drink only blights me
        but I do it.


Every night, I go back to Mr. Jefferson’s place, searching still
his kitchens, behind staircases, in a patch of shade somewhere

beside his joinery & within his small ice house, till I get down
that pit, lined with straw, where Mr. Jefferson once stacked frozen slabs

of river water until summer. Then, visitors would come to him
to ask about a peculiar green star, or help him open up

his maps. They’d kneel together on the floor, among his books
lavish hunks of ice melting like the preserved tears

of some antique mammal who must have wept
to leave Ablemarle, just as I wept when I landed in Milan

for the first time, stone city where Mr. Jefferson began
to learn the science of ice houses, how you dig into the dark

flank of the land, how you seal the cavity. Leave open
just one small hatch through which I might lift, through gratings

Mr. Jefferson’s cold dressed victuals, his expensive butter & salads
the sealed jars sweating clear gems of condensation, white blood

appearing from warm air, as if air could break & slough, revealing
the curved arc of our shared Milan. There, I wore silver rings

on each thumb. I studied & spoke in fine houses 
of ice. I knew a kind of crying which sealed me to such realms

for good. Old magic weep, old throb-in-throat. How much
of my fondness for any place is water, stilled & bound

to darkness?


                      After Anne Sexton


Some ghosts are my mothers
neither angry nor kind
their hair blooming from silk kerchiefs.
Not queens, but ghosts
who hum down the hall on their curved fins
sad as seahorses.

Not all ghosts are mothers.
I’ve counted them as I walk the beach.
Some are herons wearing the moonrise like lace.
Not lonely, but ghostly.
They stalk the low tide pools, flexing
their brassy beaks, their eyes.

But that isn’t all.
Some of my ghosts are planets.
Not bright. Not young.
Spiraling deep in the dusk of my body
as saucers or moons
pleased with their belts of colored dust
& hailing no others.

Related Poems

A Way of Seeing

It all comes from this dark dirt,
memory as casual as a laborer.

Remembrances of ancestors
kept in trinkets, tiny remains

that would madden anthropologists
with their namelessness.

No records, just smells of stories
passing through most tenuous links,

trusting in the birthing of seed from seed;
this calabash bowl of Great-grand

Martha, born a slave’s child;
this bundle of socks, unused

thick woolen things for the snow—
he died, Uncle Felix, before the ship

pushed off the Kingston wharf,
nosing for winter, for London.

He never used the socks, just
had them buried with him.

So, sometimes forgetting the panorama
these poems focus like a tunnel,

to a way of seeing time past,
a way of seeing the dead.

Black Mythology

Under the cover of night, Icarus,
careful not to wake his captors from sleep,
flees from the prison built by his father’s
master. He does not look back. He does not
stop. Just as Icarus arrives at the border
of the sky, more North than he’s ever thought
possible, Master’s son, with blazing rage,
strikes the wings from Icarus’ shoulders with a whip,
a tendril of flame hungry for dark meat.

Icarus plummets into the river and drowns.
The river carries him and spits him out
someplace colder, some unfamiliar South,
where he’ll tread forever in an ocean
always bloated blue with bodies of kin.

Lines Composed at 34 North Park Street, on Certain Memories of My White Grandmother Who Loved Me and Hated Black People Like Myself. July 15, 2017

America I was I think I was

Seven I think or anyway I prob-

ably was    nine    I anyway was nine


And riding in the back    seat of our tan

Datsun 210    which by the way Amer-

ica I can’t believe    Datsun is just


Gone    anyway   America I was

Riding in the back    seat we were we my grand-

mother and I were passing the it must


Have been a mall    but I have tried    and can’t

Remember any malls in Austin at

The time America but do I really


Remember Austin really    I remember

This thing that happened    once when I was passing

A mall in Austin so    the mall so Austin


But then and when America will my

Grandmother be    my memories of her her-

self be replaced by memories of just


Her presence near    important or unusu-

al things that happened does that happen will

That happen we     America we were


Anyway passing     on a city street

But next to it the    mall and actually

I might have been in the front seat actually


And maybe it was    winter all the windows

Were rolled up maybe or at least the one

Right next to me    in the front seat Amer-


ica when for    no reason I could see the

Window exploded    glass swallowed me    the way

A cloudburst swallows a car    glass and a


Great stillness    flying glass and stillness both

Together    then the stillness left    and I

Jumped either over my    seat or between


The seats    into the back America

Or neither    here I might just be remem-

bering the one real accident I’ve ever


Been in I was    a child still maybe seven

Or nine and we    were in an intersec-

tion hit    and I for sure jumped then my grand-


mother and I again already my

Memories of the Datsun breaking seem

More solid than my memories of her


America    but I remember her

Mobile home filling up with trash    until

She couldn’t walk through any room    and still she


Walked through her rooms she walked the way I walk

Through stores    suspicious    and aloof watched e-

ven by the products I consume consumed


By you America    O cloud of glass