The Virus

Dubbed undetectable, I can’t kill
The people you touch, and I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want to.
I want them dying, and I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
Each organ
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
If I can’t leave you
Dead, I’ll have
You vexed. Look. Look
Again: show me the color
Of your flowers now.

More by Jericho Brown

Another Elegy

This is what our dying looks like.
You believe in the sun. I believe
I can’t love you. Always be closing,
Said our favorite professor before
He let the gun go off in his mouth.
I turned 29 the way any man turns
In his sleep, unaware of the earth
Moving beneath him, its plates in
Their places, a dated disagreement.
Let’s fight it out, baby. You have
Only so long left—a man turning
In his sleep—so I take a picture.
I won’t look at it, of course. It’s
His bad side, his Mr. Hyde, the hole
In a husband’s head, the O
Of his wife’s mouth. Every night,
I take a pill. Miss one, and I’m gone.
Miss two, and we’re through. Hotels
Bore me, unless I get a mountain view,
A room in which my cell won’t work,
And there’s nothing to do but see
The sun go down into the ground
That cradles us as any coffin can.

Odd Jobs

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.

Langston Blue

“O Blood of the River of songs,
O songs of the River of Blood,”
       Let me lie down. Let my words

Lie sound in the mouths of men
Repeating invocations pure
       And perfect as a moan

That mounts in the mouth of Bessie Smith.
Blues for the angels kicked out
       Of heaven. Blues for the angels

Who miss them still. Blues
For my people and what water
       They know. O weary drinkers

Drinking from the bloody river,
Why go to heaven with Harlem
       So close? Why sing of rivers

With fathers of our own to miss?
I remember mine and taste a stain
       Like blood coursing the body

Of a man chased by a mob. I write
His running, his sweat: here,
       He climbs a poplar for the sky,

But it is only sky. The river?
Follow me. You’ll see. We tried
       To fly and learned we couldn’t

Swim. Dear singing river full
Of my blood, are we as loud under
       Water? Is it blood that binds

Brothers? Or is it the Mississippi
Running through the fattest vein
       Of America? When I say home,

I mean I wanted to write some
Lines. I wanted to hear the blues,
       But here I am swimming in the river

Again. What flows through the fat
Veins of a drowned body? What
       America can a body call

Home? When I say Congo, I mean
Blood. When I say Nile, I mean blood.
       When I say Euphrates, I mean,

If only you knew what blood
We have in common. So much,
       In Louisiana, they call a man like me

Red. And red was too dark
For my daddy. And my daddy was
       Too dark for America. He ran

Like a man from my mother
And me. And my mother’s sobs
       Are the songs of Bessie Smith

Who wears more feathers than
Death. O the death my people refuse
       To die. When I was 18, I wrote down

The river though I couldn’t win
A race, climbed a tree that winter, then
       Fell, flat on my wet, red face. Line

After line, I read all the time,
But “there was nothing I could do
       About race.”