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.

More by Kwame Dawes

Requiem

I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
mercantilistic madness.

We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,

so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants

may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those

devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp

I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.

Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.

If we don’t, who will
recall in requiem
the scattering of my tribe?

In every reggae chant
stepping proud against Babylon
I hear a blue note

of lament, sweet requiem
for the countless dead,
skanking feet among shell,

coral, rainbow adze,
webbed feet, making as if

to lift, soar, fly into new days.

Land Ho

I cannot speak the languages
spoken in that vessel,
cannot read the beads
promising salvation.

I know this only,
that when the green of land
appeared like light
after the horror of this crossing,

we straightened our backs
and faced the simplicity
of new days with flame.
I know I have the blood of survivors

coursing through my veins;
I know the lament of our loss
must warm us again and again
down in the belly of the whale,

here in the belly of the whale
where we are still searching for homes.
We sing laments so old, so true,
then straighten our backs again.

Shook Foil

I

The whole earth is filled with the love of God.
     In the backwoods, the green light
is startled by blossoming white petals,
     soft pathways for the praying bird
dipping into the nectar, darting in starts
     among the tangle of bush and trees.
My giddy walk through this speckled grotto
     is drunk with the slow mugginess
of a reggae bassline, finding its melody
     in the mellow of the soft earth’s breath.
I find the narrow stream like a dog sniffing,
     and dip my sweaty feet in the cool.
While sitting in this womb of space
     the salad romantic in me constructs a poem. This is all I
           can muster
     before the clatter of schoolchildren
searching for the crooks of guava branches
     startles all with their expletives and howls;
the trailing snot-faced child wailing perpetual—
     with ritual pauses for breath and pity.
In their wake I find the silver innards of discarded
      cigarette boxes, the anemic pale of tossed
condoms, the smashed brown sparkle of Red Stripe
     bottles, a mélange of bones and rotting fruit,
there in the sudden white light of noon.

II

      How quickly the grandeur fades into a poem,
how easily everything of reverie starts to crumble.
     I walk from the stream. Within seconds
sweat soaks my neck and back; stones clog my shoes,
     flies prick my flaming face and ears,
bramble draws thin lines of blood on my arms.
     There is a surfeit of love hidden here;
at least this is the way faith asserts itself.
     I emerge from the valley of contradictions,
my heart beating with the effort, and stand looking
     over the banking, far into Kingston Harbor
and the blue into gray of the Caribbean Sea.
     I dream up a conceit for this journey
and with remarkable snugness it fits;
     this reggae sound: the bluesy mellow
of a stroll on soft, fecund earth, battling the crack
     of the cross-stick; the scratch of guitar,
the electronic manipulation of digital sound,
     and the plaintive wail of the grating voice.
With my eyes closed, I am drunk with the mellow,
     swimming, swimming among the green of better days;
and I rise from the pool of sound, slippery with
     the warm cling of music on my skin,
and enter the drier staleness of the road
     that leads to the waiting city of fluorescent lights.

Related Poems

Talking About New Orleans

Talking about New Orleans
About deforestation & the flood of vodun paraphernalia
the Congo line losing its Congo
the funeral bands losing their funding
the killer winds humming intertribal warfare hums into
two storm-surges
touching down tonguing the ground
three thousand times in a circle of grief
four thousand times on a levee of lips
five thousand times between a fema of fangs
everything fiendish, fetid, funky, swollen, overheated
and splashed with blood & guts & drops of urinated gin
                                                      in syncopation with me
riding through on a refrigerator covered with
asphalt chips with pieces of ragtime music charts
torn photo mug shots & pulverized turtle shells from Biloxi
                                        me bumping against a million-dollar oil rig
me in a ghost town floating on a river on top of a river
                          me with a hundred ton of crab legs
                                        and no evacuation plan
me in a battered tree barking & howling with abandoned dogs
my cheeks stained with dried suicide kisses
my isolation rising with a rainbow of human corpse & 
                                                      fecal rat bones
where is that fire chief in his big hat
where are the fucking pumps
the rescue boats
& the famous coalition of bullhorns calling out names
                          hey     I want my red life jacket now
& I need some sacred sandbags
some fix-the-levee-powder
some blood-pressure-support-juice
some get-it-together-dust
some lucky-rooftop-charms &
some magic-helicopter-blades
I'm not prepared
to live on the bottom of the water like Oshun
I don't have a house built on stilts
I can't cross the sea like Olokun
I'm not equipped to walk on water like Marie Laveau
or swim away from a Titanic situation like Mr. Shine
Send in those paddling engineers
I'm inside of my insides
& I need to distinguish
between the nightmare, the mirage,
the dream and the hallucination
Give me statistics
how many residents died while waiting
how many drowned
how many suffocated
how many were dehydrated
how many were separated
how many are missing
how many had babies
and anyway
who's in charge of this confusion
this gulf coast engulfment
this displacement
this superdome shelter
this stench of stank
this demolition order
this crowded convention center chaos
making me crave solitary confinement

Am I on my own
exhausted from fighting racist policies
exhausted from fighting off sex offenders
exhausted from fighting for cots for tents for trailers
for a way out of this anxiety   this fear   this emptiness
this avoidance   this unequal opportunity world of
disappointments accumulating in my undocumented eye
of no return tickets

Is this freedom   is this global warming   is this the new identity
me riding on a refrigerator through contaminated debris
talking to no one in particular
about a storm that became a hurricane
& a hurricane that got violent and started
eyeballing & whistling & stretching toward
a category three domination that caught me in
                          the numbness of my own consciousness
                               unprepared, unprotected and
                                    made more vulnerable to destabilization
by the corporate installation of human greed, human poverty
human invention of racism & human neglect of the environment

I mean even Buddy Bolden came back to say
                          move to higher ground
                               because a hurricane will not
                                    rearrange its creativity for you
& the river will meet the ocean in
                                         the lake of your flesh again
so move to higher ground
and let your jungle find its new defense
let the smell of your wisdom restore the power of pure air
& let your intoxicated shoreline rumble above & beyond the
water-marks of disaster

I'm speaking of New Orleans of deportation
of belching bulldozers   of poisonous snakes
of bruised bodies   of instability and madness
mechanism of indifference and process of elimination
I'm talking about transformation about death re-entering life with
Bonne chance, bon ton roulé, bonjour & bonne vie in New Orleans, bon