A truckload of fresh watermelons, 
lemon-green goodness on a slouching 
truck, cutting through so many states: 
Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland, 
into the smoke-heavy Pennsylvania cities; 
from red dirt like a land soaked 
in blood to the dark loam of this new 
land—from chaos to the orderly 
silence of the wolf country—Pittsburgh's 
dark uneven skyline, where 
we have found shelter 
while the crippled leader 
waits to promise healing 
for a nation starving 
on itself. Two men, dusty
from the Parchman Farm, 
their eyes still hungry 
with dreams, laugh bitter 
laughs, carrying the iron 
of purpose in them. Hear 
the engine clunking, hear 
the steel of a new century 
creaking. There is blood 
in the sky—at dawn, the city 
takes them in like a woman. 
Inside them all memory 
becomes the fiction of survival—
here the dead have hands 
that can caress and heal, 
hands that can push a living 
body into a grave, hold it there, 
and the living get to sing it. 
This is a nation of young men, 
dark with the legacies 
of brokenness, men who know 
that life is short, that the world 
brings blood, that peace 
is a night of quiet repose 
while the dogs howl in the woods, 
men who know the comfort 
of steel, cold as mist at dawn, 
pure burnished steel.

More by Kwame Dawes

Talk

            For August Wilson

No one quarrels here, no one has learned
the yell of discontent—instead, here in Sumter
we learn to grow silent, build a stone
of resolve, learn to nod, learn to close
in the flame of shame and anger
in our hearts, learn to petrify it so,
and the more we quiet our ire,
the heavier the stone; this alchemy
of concrete in the vein, the sludge
of affront, until even that will calcify
and the heart, at last, will stop,
unassailable, unmovable, adamant.

Find me a man who will stand
on a blasted hill and shout,
find me a woman who will break   
into shouts, who will let loose
a river of lament, find the howl
of the spirit, teach us the tongues
of the angry so that our blood,
my pulse—our hearts flow
with the warm healing of anger.

You, August, have carried in your belly
every song of affront your characters
have spoken, and maybe you waited
too long to howl against the night,
but each evening on some wooden
stage, these men and women,
learn to sing songs lost for centuries,
learn the healing of talk, the calming
of quarrel, the music of contention,
and in this cacophonic chorus,
we find the ritual of living.

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.

Trickster III

This bassline is sticky like asphalt
and wet like molasses heated nice and hot,

and the bass drum booms my heart,
jumping me, jump-starting me

to find the path of this sluggish sound;
I follow the tap like a fly catching light

in its rainbow gossamer wings
on top of a big-ear elephant;

I follow the pluck of a mute lead-guitar string,
tacking, tacking out a tattoo to the bassline;

I let the syrup surround my legs
and my waist is moving without a cue,

without a clue of where we are going,
walking on the spot like this.

Coolly, deadly, roots sound on my back,
and I can conjure hope in anything;

dreams in my cubbyhole of a room where
the roaches scuttle from the tonguing gecko.

This music finds me giddy and centered, but when
morning comes, I am lost again, no love, just lost again.