Muscular Fantasy

- 1971-
For October

I was thinking about that museum 
with just the one painted stamp people 
pay big money to stare at minimum 
an hour at a time by a painter of people

who have been old for a very long time. 
Sarah Beth Bess of Peducah, Old Walter Thom
outside Paris Island, the most senior clients
of most of the low country senior homes.   

There used to be a country where no sad
songs were allowed out loud because 
making the king blue was outlawed. 
The girl falling down the well sang without pause 

as she fell. People described it as gospel.
The boy in the well sang as well as a small bell 
& the people said it sounded like babble.
Rising in life-like detail from the middle 

of the stamp sized painting is an ornate mountain. 
My people moved further south to the beaches 
instead of moving north after reconstruction. 
“Blessed,” my father said when I asked if he’d 

rather be blessed or lucky. Soda in a can taste better 
than soda in a bottle but beer in a bottle 
taste better than beer in a can. It’s better
plus less stressful to think the best of people.

The worst thing about scared people 
is they go around scaring other people. 
Who you are with your mamma, People, 
is not who you are with other people.

The color of my mother’s thumbs up emoji 
is unchanged either because she’s not estranged 
by such things or because she doesn’t know 
the shade of her thumb can be changed. 

The painter can be seen painting a small 
painting through the window of a modestly
decorated cabin on the mountain. With all 
the people who clap when some mostly 

vengeful violence happens in the movie, 
those who do not clap may feel no other people 
are not clapping. I hear you. It seems  
reasonable to stare at a painting for at least 

as long as it takes the painter to make it 
& also reasonable to stare for approximately 
as long as it takes the sun to rise & set.
I told my father being blessed was vaguely 

more dependent on the whims of God. 
I’d rather be lucky. The girl in the well 
was put there in the name of god
by farming people. The boy fell.

At Pegasus

They are like those crazy women 
   who tore Orpheus
      when he refused to sing,

these men grinding
   in the strobe & black lights
      of Pegasus. All shadow & sound.

"I'm just here for the music," 
   I tell the man who asks me
      to the floor. But I have held

a boy on my back before.
   Curtis & I used to leap
      barefoot into the creek; dance

among maggots & piss,
   beer bottles & tadpoles
      slippery as sperm;

we used to pull off our shirts, 
   & slap music into our skin.
      He wouldn't know me now
at the edge of these lovers' gyre, 
   glitter & steam, fire,
      bodies blurred sexless

by the music's spinning light.
   A young man slips his thumb
      into the mouth of an old one,

& I am not that far away.
   The whole scene raw & delicate 
      as Curtis's foot gashed

on a sunken bottle shard. 
   They press hip to hip,
      each breathless as a boy

carrying a friend on his back. 
   The foot swelling green
      as the sewage in that creek.

We never went back.
   But I remember his weight 
      better than I remember

my first kiss.
   These men know something
      I used to know.

How could I not find them
   beautiful, the way they dive & spill 
      into each other,

the way the dance floor
   takes them,
      wet & holy in its mouth.

What I Am

Fred Sanford's on at 12
& I'm standing in the express lane (cash only)
about to buy Head & Shoulders
the white people shampoo, no one knows
what I am. My name could be Lamont.
George Clinton wears colors like Toucan Sam,
the Froot Loop pelican. Follow your nose,
he says. But I have no nose, no mouth,
so you tell me what's good, what's god,
what's funky. When I stop
by McDonalds for a cheeseburger, no one
suspects what I am. I smile at Ronald's poster,
perpetual grin behind the pissed-off, fly-girl
cashier I love. Where are my goddamn fries?
Ain't I American? I never say, Niggaz
in my poems. My ancestors didn't
emigrate. Why would anyone leave
their native land? I'm thinking about shooting
some hoop later on. I'll dunk on everyone
of those niggaz. They have no idea
what I am. I might be the next Jordan
god. They don't know if Toni Morrison
is a woman or a man. Michael Jackson
is the biggest name in showbiz. Mamma se 
Mamma sa mamma ku sa, sang the Bushmen 
in Africa. I'll buy a dimebag after the game, 
me & Jody. He says, Fuck them white people 
at work, Man. He was an All-American 
in high school. He's cool, but he don't know 
what I am, & so what. Fred Sanford's on 
in a few & I got the dandruff-free head 
& shoulders of white people & a cheeseburger 
belly & a Thriller CD & Nike high tops 
& slavery's dead & the TV's my daddy-- 
   You big Dummy!
Fred tells Lamont.

The Blue Terrance

If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,

the math teacher's toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:

the match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.

Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,

and the lyrics asking: How long has your door
been closed?
I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows

of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song

in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That's why

the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that's why when they call, Boy, you're in

trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you're a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love

watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit

and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-

house more. That's why nothing's more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing's more romantic

than the way good love can take leave of you.
That's why I'm so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I'm lonesome and I'm blue.

Related Poems

Judith and Holofernes

oil on linen, 120” x 90” by Kehinde Wiley, 2012

in the frame stood all that could be done.
a dash of blood on a long and ready blade.
a justice this particular day made late. one
head without a body, hanging from the other
body. a sign to be read, not spoken. a wish
to be wished and not had. the problem is
it’s already done and up on the wall and
although it is there, happened and recorded
its broken chronology won’t be mentioned.

I am stuck in the contrast of garden and
grave. all bloom all wither all pattern and its
sore disruption. every aunt I have known
nails set to a dazzle wears the sweet remix
of Judith. blushed to balance out the gore.
the chain-linked wallpaper stares back at
what seemed to be the only feeling left.
a lie stuffed under our beds for our good.
who’s the poor tyrant in our own Bethulia?
who’s lured us into this hunting, spooked
us into such a calamitous marriage?


I’ve lost something and I can’t describe
what it is


and what if that’s my job
to say how empty an absence is


like rolling 2 gears together
and maybe teeth are missing in one
or both


or maybe trying to grind
two stones that are
polished and smoothed


I’ve always liked 
a little grit


but sand in my shoes
or in my hair


is like shattering
a glass in carpet
and using a broom to
get it out


I can’t describe
what it’s like to
sit on opposite ends
of a park bench and
not know how
to get any closer


I miss so many things
and I’ve looked through my piggy
bank and only found pennies


a pile of things that are
almost completely worthless


a shoebox full of sporks
a well with a bucket and a rope
that’s too short


sometimes in my room
it’s so dark that if I wake
up I won’t know if it’s morning or night


imagine being someplace you know
so well but are lost and don’t have any idea
how to get out


the rule is, put your right hand out
lay it on the wall, and follow


sometimes the rules don’t apply to all of us
I don’t want to sleep here again tonight


Between pines, a pause
in the forest, transparent, yet visible,
like how no, in its nothing

is still an answer, is the water

I could not give her, the wish
taken out of the well; and her bones
left to vanish in their circle

become the circle, are the clearing

I approach. And when at last I am alone,
I ask her death to hold me, the way air holds up
a bird above its home. Or how my seat, when I stood up

became empty, and remained—in those moments

when she asked and I walked toward her—both an end
and a waiting,
and an end to the waiting.