A Young Man

Jericho Brown
We stand together on our block, me and my son,
Neighbors saying our face is the same, but I know
He’s better than me: when other children move

Toward my daughter, he lurches like a brother
Meant to put them down. He is a bodyguard
On the playground. He won’t turn apart from her,

Empties any enemy, leaves them flimsy, me
Confounded. I never fought for so much—
I calmed my daughter when I could cradle

My daughter; my son swaggers about her. 
He won’t have to heal a girl he won’t let free. 
They are so small. And I, still, am a young man.

In him lives my black anger made red.
They play. He is not yet incarcerated.

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.”

Related Poems

Elegy

I remember the boys & their open hands. High fives

of farewell. I remember that the birches waved too,

the white jagged limbs turning away from incessant wildfires.

 

The future wavered, unlike a question, unlike

a hand or headstone. The future moved & the fields already knew it.

 

I remember the war of the alphabet, its ears sliced from its face. I

know that language asks for blood.

 

The children of kudzu, lilac, the spit of unknown rivers. I remember the jury

& the judge of the people. The buckshot that blew

the morning’s torso into smoke.

 

That last morning I begged the grandmothers to leave their rage next to red candles

& worn photographs of their children & their blue-eyed grandson

with his bleeding heart. The savior bled flowers.

 

I scattered the stones the trees bore. Gray vultures came for my children.

They knew the old country better than me. They broke through

skyscrapers & devoured both villain & hero.

 

& boys were pouring, wanted & unwanted & missing yet from the long mouth

where their voices were forced to say they were nothing. But they were men, invisible

& native & guilty beyond their glottal doubt.

 

I remember calling out to the savage field where more boys knelt & swung

through the air. I remember how their eyes rolled back

in blood, milk, & gasoline. Their white teeth

chewing cotton into shrouds, scars & sheets.

 

They gave me their last words. They gave me smiles for their fathers.

They slept in my arms, dead & bruised. Long as brambles.

 

The bullets in their heads & groins

quieting like a day. The meat of nothing.

 

I held their million heads in my lap when the bodies were taken away.

I don’t know if what’s left will dance or burn.

I wash their eyelids with mint.

But let God beg pardon to them & their mothers

 

& I don’t know if the body is a pendulum of where love cannot go

when the tongue is swollen with the milk of black boys.

I pulled their lives from the trees & lawns & schools.

The unlit houses & the river. Their forewings wet

with clouds

 

& screaming. I won’t leave them,

huddled like bulls inside the stall of a word. I am the shriek,

the suture, the petal

shook loose from their silence.