Very Many Hands

Aaron Coleman

You remind me of the Underground Railroad. I’ve learned to watch
for the kerosene lamp aglare in your distance. Past the fuel and wick
at the far end of your forest, there’s a mud basement, a soot-slick coal
cellar with my sleeping body’s name on it. I could lie still forever in
that part of you. But then I’d never make it North.

                                              *  *  *

I am made of what I am afraid to remember. Come tell me more
about what I was—about the brothers, mind-ancient now, fleeing
Mississippi with spilled moon ready in their eyes. Go back and tell me
about that one before that one that sold a mother. Wait. Then give 
me more about the buzz of war, of San Diego shipyards, of 
handsome sailors you couldn’t trust. Make vivid the night with me 
before me in it. Tell me what was lost on the way to Detroit. Tell me
what was lost leaving Detroit. Tell me why I’m afraid for and of 
Detroit. Tell me Desire can’t mean what it meant anymore. And I 
can’t mean what I meant anymore. Am I lovesick with amnesia or 
nostalgia?

 

I sit twelve people down the church pew from you, trying to catch
the rhythm in your blinking. I seek more than your face. It hurts 
to see the way sound makes a tunnel. Its root-veined walls there then 
gone. You and I compose another kind.

                                              *  *  *

Witness my long line of lovestruck liars: those who can’t take the sky, 
deceivers of their own eyes, change lovers, receivers of forgetfulness, 
ecstatic touchmongers, merciless collagists, the spiritually jackknifed, 
ever-children and the like. I am each of them and heavy hands red on 
cold glass holding why-still-blue water, in dull music, surrounded by 
bloom, fear-lit and forever-fraught. This is a truth; not-quite-closed 
eyes scrambling over nakedness elusive as hope. But barely hope. 
Lovestruck, lying, I wonder about everything I’ll find in this body—
and this body. I wonder what it knows. I wonder about yours.

 

I am wrapped in a shawl of patchwork wants. Of languages displaced 
in veins. Of sheet rock cut open with explosives to force through 
byways and sow man-high seas of crops, to make space for 
interstates, for cold emergencies and tanks, and touch.

                                              *  *  *

I am stitched together with the risk inside Desire. Call risk a bridge. 
Call one palm full of why-still-blue water—oh, how my mind is just 
my mind crossing. Not the limb of a ghost stuck in the hinge of a 
door. Not the fight lost inherent in a child. Who was it that dipped an 
index finger into my mouth, fished that penny from my tongue, 
saved me from some dumb Desire? Who was it? Who watched as I 
stood there too in line, too silent, trying to fall behind, an almost 
question in my near-new eyes?

More by Aaron Coleman

The Broken Man’s Permission

A crocodile slips its earth-toned body 
back into the river, in silence, violence down
and for its nightness

I cannot see the water. With fear 
I am alone. Slick rocks smile thin anonymous light, they lie

about what I am. I see and try to hold
my body in my body, trace a vein 
from the base of my palm through 

the crook of my elbow, armpit, home—home 
makes no sense. I've given up on what I know.

This blindness is a mirror turning
back to sand still hollowed, where 
every sound is amplified. I want to be the crocodile’s

stomach that is my father, teeth
that are my mother, vertebrae 

that aggregate the spine that are loves, knuckled
angles casing nerves. It’s me wading around
inside, mouth open. A humid numbness dense, low, 

beneath the undertow: hands that coax and claim
my scaled neck, soothe and pull

each knotted shoulder. I give in to a third of moon caught
in cloud, its orange-grey halo drawn away 
from what can be named, known. A curse and prayer 

to go unchanged within this water, my movement 
foreign, a rootless gurgle, flit of river vines

caging the dwindling
river’s brutal bed, the gorge, flushed 
with new food: the blue heron’s bone-flight collapsed,

tangled feathers along the mudglut bank’s 
saliva, lifting like shame in the open.

Related Poems

Wild Night

Rev. Christopher Rush, 1835

The white folks were restless again last night.
All we could do was keep the faith, and wait.
My first parishioners started arriving at sunset,
having heard rumors, and reluctant to stay at home.
Our shadows danced in the sanctuary’s candle-flames
as audible whiffs of pandemonium
drifted to us, like smoke from distant fires.
With most of the village in, I locked the doors.

I asked everyone to bow their heads and pray.
Pray for this nation’s struggle to be free
for ALL Americans. Equality
must be bitter, if you’ve always been on top,
and you’re slapped awake out of a lifelong sleep.
Pray we’ll pull together toward a common hope.

      … Hundreds of voices raised.
      Could that be drums?!
      That was a firehouse bell …
      That was a scream!

Near dawn. The children and some mothers sleep;
roosters crow morning, a couple of yard-dogs yap,
the songbirds choir. The violence has stopped.
I step out into every day new light.
My little flock has weathered a wild night.
But someone somewhere is less fortunate.
Tim Seaman comes out, nods, and finds a tree.
Would every now held such tranquility.

 

There were many anti-abolition riots in New York City in 1834–45. White mobs attacked targets associated with abolitionists and African Americans. People were beaten. More than seven churches were damaged, many of them belonging to African American congregations.