Memorial Hoops

The day broke a record for cold, for us wanting
To be anywhere but outside, & it was late
May, the weekend we called Memorial. My mother
Is a veteran, but that is a story for another time,
& we were driving into the mother of rivers state,
My youngest son, named after two men, one who
Turned a trumpet into a prayer, the other who
Before a piano became whatever those who know say
G-d sounds like, me, & friends, who like me, imagined
Watching their sons trade baskets with strangers
Was some kind of holy. Around us was more granite
Than Black folks & I carried Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man
In my knapsack, hesitant to return to all the astonishing
Ways we make each other suffer &, still, somehow,
Survive, & astonished most by how we remember. I’ve
Forgotten my fair share of things that matter. But
Who am I kidding? The weekend was about
Basketball. We’d driven three hours to this colder
Weather. My youngest boy hoped he’d heat up once
A ball touched his hands. Did I say we named the child
After the idiosyncrasies of Jazz, all because as children
I don’t think my wife & I knew enough ambition
To save us from what we’d encounter. These were the days

When he and the nine he suited up with desired
Little more than to hear the rasp of a ball against whatever
Passed for wood in a gym with a hoop. There is something
To be said about how basketball makes men of boys and boys
Of men. The ref who chattered with us parents wondered
Why a cousin the age of the ballers ate chips for breakfast.
The other team had a player who made me think, though
She be but little she is fierce, as she, the only girl on
The court slipped a jewel into that hovering crown
We cheered, even those of us whose boys sought to dribble
& jump shot their way to the glory of a win. & when Miles
Came down as if he knew what would happen. I didn’t hold
My breath. A crossover, the ball then swung around his back,
The kid before him lost on some raft in a wild river. Maybe
He knew the ball would fall true because he turned around
To watch us as much as to get back on defense. We laughed
& laughed & watched as kids barely large enough to launch
all of that need at a target did so, again & again.

I’m Learning Nothing This Night

The magazine on my lap talks
about milk. Tells me that in America,
every farmer lost money on
every cow, every day of every month
of the year. Imagine that? To wake
up and know you’re digging yourself
deeper into a hole you can’t see
out of, even as your hands are wet
with what feeds you. That’s how this
thing is, holding on & losing a little each
moment. I’m whispering an invented
history to myself tonight—because
letting go is the art of living fully
in the world your body creates
when you sleep. Say a prayer for
the insomniacs. They hunger &
demand the impossible. Pray for
the farmers, hands deep in loam—
body’s weight believing what
the mind knows is ruin, they too
want the impossible, so accustomed
to the earth responding when they call.

For the City that Nearly Broke Me

A woman tattoos Malik’s name above
her breast & talks about the conspiracy
to destroy blacks. This is all a fancy way
to say that someone kirked out, emptied
five or six or seven shots into a still warm body.
No indictment follows Malik’s death,
follows smoke running from a fired pistol.
An old quarrel: crimson against concrete
& the officer’s gun still smoking.
Someone says the people need to stand up,
that the system’s a glass house falling on only
a few heads. This & the stop snitching ads
are the conundrum and damn all that blood.
All those closed eyes imagining Malik’s
killer forever coffled to a series of cells,
& you almost believe them, you do, except
the cognac in your hand is an old habit,
a toast to friends buried before the daybreak
of their old age. You know the truth
of the talking, of the quarrels & how
history lets the blamed go blameless for
the blood that flows black in the street;
you imagine there is a riot going on,
& someone is tossing a trash can through
Sal’s window calling that revolution,
while behind us cell doors keep clanking closed,
& Malik’s casket door clanks closed,
& the bodies that roll off the block
& into the prisons and into the ground,
keep rolling, & no one will admit
that this is the way America strangles itself.

Prison

Prison is the sinner’s bouquet, house of shredded & torn
               Dear John letters, upended grave of names, moon
               Black kiss of a pistol’s flat side, time blueborn
& threaded into a curse, Lazarus of hustlers, the picayune
Spinning into beatdowns; breath of a thief stilled
               By fluorescent lights, a system of 40 blocks,
               Empty vials, a hand full of purple cranesbills,
Memories of crates suspended from stairs, tied in knots
Around street lamps, the house of unending push-ups,
              Wheelbarrels & walking 20s, the daughters
              Chasing their father’s shadows, sons that upset
The wind with their secrets, the paraphrase of fractured,
              Scarred wings flying through smoke, each wild hour
              Of lockdown, hunger time & the blackened flower.

Related Poems

Basketball feat. Galileo & EPMD

I split every bit of sunlight at College Park’s ball court—
land of sweaty Rebook tees & patriotic wristbands—
escalating to the rim like every player on that court would do

to the Lafayette Square Mall mezzanine on weekends.
Every bit of tangled shine around my neck: a hypotenuse
of intention. Highlights are the only lights in my low-rise

space of sneaker to shin & elbow to crown. The only time
I dunked, the court exploded like a party hearing “You
Gots to Chill” for the first time. & when the smoke cleared,

I hung as tight as a sweaty headband on that rim, talking
smack to the other nine ballers & to their nine mamas. Then
the slipping & cracking. Then the next two months left-handing

jumpers, blurry scribbles on my cast, the basketball rotating
as insistently as the back-spinning apple that split Galileo’s wig.

It Is Maybe Time to Admit That Michael Jordan Definitely Pushed Off

that one time in the ’98 NBA finals & in praise of one man’s hand on the waist of another’s & in praise of the ways we guide our ships to the shore of some brief & gilded mercy I touch my fingers to the hips of this vast & immovable grief & push once more & who is to say really how much weight was behind Jordan’s palm on that night in Utah & on that same night one year earlier the paramedics pulled my drowning mother from the sheets where she slept & they said it must have felt like a whole hand was pushing down on her lungs & I spent the whole summer holding my breath in bed until the small black spots danced on the ceiling & I am sorry that there is no way to describe this that is not about agony or that is not about someone being torn from the perch of their comfort & on the same night a year before my mother died Jordan wept on the floor of the United Center locker room after winning another title because it was father’s day & his father went to sleep on the side of a road in ’93 & woke up a ghost & there is no moment worth falling to our knees & galloping towards like the one that sings our dead into the architecture & so yes for a moment in 1998 Michael Jordan made what space he could on the path between him & his father’s small & breathing grace

& so yes,

there is an ocean between us the length of my arm & I have built nothing for you that can survive it

& from here I am close enough to be seen but not close enough to be cherished

& from here, I can see every possible ending before we even touch.