When I See the Stars in the Night Sky

I think of Whitney Houston    in her sequined glamour
   She’s centerstage      It’s 1988           Her head
             Thrown back against a black backdrop     She is the only thing
      glowing       So distant                        from us in the universe

    of her voice                 She is already dying       when
I hear her sing the first time          When I slip inside
   my rhinestone leotard white tights          Before a mic
              My vocal chords are still elastic                  Vibrating harpstring

    Not yet sclerotic with unlovely smoke                    and shame
    I’m drawn to Whitney like a cardinal on a branch
in winter            Beauty too bright for camouflage                 Her story
a constellation twinned with mine. I love myself 

          because of her. Our sweet lip sweat sparkling in the flame
light. I went home inside myself too. The world became so small.  
          Secrets collapsing my life into a vacuum. To burn a little longer—
Whitney, you know           no one is coming—you must        save yourself.

Denial is a Cliff We Are Driven Over

I want to believe Don West
when he writes: none of mine

ever made their living by driving slaves.
But in my grandfather’s mouth that utterance

would’ve taken on another meaning:
In the memory my mother shares,

he is flitting across Louisville
in his taxi, passing back-and-forth

like a cardinal, red-faced, proud-breasted,
delivering Black folks their dry cleaning—

had to, she tells me, as part of his route—
but once he started his second shift and turned

on the cab light, he wouldn’t accept
Black fare. I recall him reciting

the early presidents’
racist pseudoscience—American

at its liver—to rationalize his hatred
of my father, his denial

of my Blackness. That denial a peril
I survived, a cliff he could have driven me over

at any moment of my childhood. Maybe,
I want to think, because they were poor men

who labored, farmed tobacco and dug for oil,
my grandfather’s people resisted

slavery, felt a kinship with my father’s people.
Or that because my grandfather

was one of eleven mouths to feed
on their homestead—reduced to dirt

across the Great Depression—
he had a white identity to be proud of, a legacy

that didn’t join our names
in a bill of sale, but in struggle.

I search his surname and it travels
back to Germany, appears

on the deed to the house he inherited,
retired and died in, poor-white resentment

inflaming his stomach and liver.
But when I search the name I share with my father,

my only inheritance                      disappears
into the 19th century, sixth generation:

my ancestor bred
to produce 248 offspring

for his owner, from whence comes
our family name. Mr. West, here

we are different. Here, is where
my grandfather found his love for me discordant

as the voice of the dead whispering
history. Here is where we are connected,

not by class, but blood & slavery.

Looking for the Beautiful Things

I live in Texas now. & in the next lane over on I-10
BIG JEFF is soaring at twin-speed toward the dusk-pending horizon 

& something base & graceful has taken us over
like, if I took my hands off the wheel, we could lift into the air & become 

part of the indistinguishable wave of laughing gulls above. 
BIG JEFF says his license plate, which I first checked when I let him pass 

10 miles back because his lights behind me
were the Second Coming (or the First Coming, in his case, if we’re making 

the usual jokes about men with big trucks). 
But I don’t want to make unbecoming jokes about BIG JEFF, who is 

right now, accompanying me down this interstate 
of solitude, not leaving me behind or riding my bumper, just gliding 

beside me as if he needs someone too, as if he trusts me 
& said to himself in his blue-lit interior, Hey, I’m gonna hang on her wing.

She seems to know how to get where we’re going.
She’s probably a hellcat. No balls hanging from his tow bar, just BIG JEFF 

on his pearlescent Ford Super Duty, which has a row of three 
headlights on each side & which, I admit, I was more than annoyed by 

when he came up behind me like an astrodome 
on wheels. But Texas is home now & this is the way of things—BIG JEFF 

& NASA, tacos & trucks. The only state with more guns 
than Kentucky, the expert at the range told me before I left. I am an expert 

at beginnings, a Lone Star once again, as I have been 
in every state I’ve lived—the Bluegrass, the Garden, the Palmetto, the Bay—

each time hoping I’m closer to the beautiful things.

Related Poems

Venus & Serena Play Doubles On Center Court

I find an upscale bistro with a big screen at the bar.
The Williams Sisters will step out on to this Center Court,
for the very first time as a team. I celebrate the event
with my very first Cosmopolitan. I feel like a kid

watching TV in the Before Times: miraculously, Nat King Cole or
Pearl Bailey would appear on the Dinah Shore Show or Ed Sullivan.
Amazed, we’d run to the phone, call up the aunts and cousins.
Quick! Turn on Channel 10!... Three minutes of pride...

Smiling at no one in particular, I settle in to enjoy the match.
What is the commentator saying? He thinks it’s important
to describe their opponents to us: one is “dark,”
the other “blonde.” He just can’t bring himself to say:

Venus & Serena. Look at these two Classy Sisters:
Serious. Strategic. Black. Pounding History.

The Church of Michael Jordan

The hoop is not metal, but a pair of outstretched arms,
God’s arms, joined at the fingers. And God is saying

throw it to me. It’s not a ball anymore. It’s an orange prayer
I’m offering with all four chambers. And the other players—

the Pollack of limbs, flashing hands and teeth—
are just temptations, obstacles between me and the Lord’s light.

Once during an interview I slipped, I didn’t pray well tonight,
and the reporter looked at me, the same one who’d called me

a baller of destiny, and said you mean play, right? Of course,
I nodded. Don’t misunderstand—I’m no reverend

of the flesh. Priests embarrass me. A real priest
wouldn’t put on that robe, wouldn’t need the public

affirmation. A real priest works in disguise, leads
by example, preaches with his feet. Yes, Jesus walked on water,

but how about a staircase of air? And when the clock
is down to its final ticks, I rise up and over the palms

of a nonbeliever—the whole world watching, thinking
it can’t be done—I let the faith roll off my fingertips, the ball

drunk with backspin, a whole stadium of people holding
the same breath simultaneously, the net flying up like a curtain,

the lord’s truth visible for an instant, converting nonbelievers
by the bushel, who will swear for years they’ve witnessed a miracle.

Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up