My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn't, dammit: No tears. I'm stone. I'm flesh. My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning. I turn this way--the stone lets me go. I turn that way--I'm inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light to make a difference. I go down the 58,022 names, half-expecting to find my own in letters like smoke. I touch the name Andrew Johnson; I see the booby trap's white flash. Names shimmer on a woman's blouse but when she walks away the names stay on the wall. Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's wings cutting across my stare. The sky. A plane in the sky. A white vet's image floats closer to me, then his pale eyes look through mine. I'm a window. He's lost his right arm inside the stone. In the black mirror a woman's trying to erase names: No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
by Yusef Komunyakaa
Physician Rafael Campo reads his poetry:
What the Body Told
Not long ago, I studied medicine. It was terrible, what the body told. I’d look inside another person’s mouth, And see the desolation of the world. I’d see his genitals and think of sin. Because my body speaks the stranger’s language, I’ve never understood those nods and stares. My parents held me in their arms, and still I think I’ve disappointed them; they care And stare, they nod, they make their pilgrimage To somewhere distant in my heart, they cry. I look inside their other-person’s mouths And see the wet interior of souls. It’s warm and red in there—like love, with teeth. I’ve studied medicine until I cried All night. Through certain books, a truth unfolds. Anatomy and physiology, The tiny sensing organs of the tongue— Each nameless cell contributing its needs. It was fabulous, what the body told.
by Rafael Campo
Natasha Trethewey reads a poem about having a cross burned on her family’s lawn:
We tell the story every year— how we peered from the windows, shades drawn— though nothing really happened, the charred grass now green again. We peered from the windows, shades drawn, at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, the charred grass still green. Then we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps. At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns. We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps, the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil. It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns. When they were done, they left quietly. No one came. The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil; by morning the flames had all dimmed. When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came. Nothing really happened. By morning all the flames had dimmed. We tell the story every year.
by Natasha Trethewey
From Native Guard (Mariner Books, © 2007).
Scenes From a Documentary History of Mississippi
1. King Cotton, 1907
From every corner of the photograph, flags wave down the main street in Vicksburg. Stacked to form an arch, the great bales of cotton rise up from the ground like a giant swell, a wave of history flooding the town. When Roosevelt arrives—a parade—the band will march, and from every street corner, flags wave down. Words on a banner, Cotton, America’s King, have the sound of progress. This is two years before the South’s countermarch— the great bolls of cotton, risen up from the ground, infested with boll weevils—a plague, biblical, all around. Now, negro children ride the bales, clothes stiff with starch. From up high, in the photograph, they wave flags down for the President who will walk through the arch, bound for the future, his back to us. The children, on their perch— those great bales of cotton rising up from the ground— stare out at us. Cotton surrounds them, a swell, a great mound bearing them up, back toward us. From the arch, from every corner of the photograph, flags wave down, and great bales of cotton rise up from the ground.
2. Glyph, Aberdeen 1913
My bones cleave to my skin and to my flesh. . .
for the hand of God has touched me.
—Book of Job, Chapter 23
The child’s head droops as if in sleep. Stripped to the waist, in profile, he’s balanced on the man’s lap. The man, gaunt in his overalls, cradles the child’s thin arm—the sharp elbow, white signature of skin and bone. He pulls it forward to show the deformity—the humped back, curve of spine—punctuating the routine hardships of their lives: how the child must follow him into the fields, haunting the long hours slumped beside a sack, his body asking how much cotton? or in the kitchen, leaning into the icebox, how much food? or kneeling beside him at the church house, why, Lord, why? They pose as if to say Look, this is the outline of suffering: the child shouldering it—a mound like dirt heaped on a grave.
They have arrived on the back of the swollen river, the barge dividing it, their few belongings clustered about their feet. Above them the National Guard hunkers on the levee, rifles tight in their fists, blocking the path to high ground. One group of black refugees, the caption tells us, was ordered to sing their passage onto land, like a chorus of prayer—their tongues the tongues of dark bells. Here, the camera finds them still. Posed as if for a school-day portrait, children lace fingers in their laps. One boy gestures allegiance, right hand over the heart’s charged beating. The great river all around, the barge invisible beneath their feet, they fix on what’s before them: the opening in the sight of a rifle; the camera’s lens; the muddy cleft between barge and dry land— all of it aperture, the captured moment’s chasm in time. Here, in the angled light of 1927, they are refugees from history: the barge has brought them this far; they are waiting to disembark.
4. You Are Late
The sun is high and the child’s shadow, almost fully beneath her, touches the sole of her bare foot on concrete. Even though it must be hot, she’s takes the step; her goal to read is the subject of this shot—a book in her hand, the library closed, the door just out of reach. Stepping up, she must look at the two signs, read them slowly once more. The first one, in pale letters, barely shows against the white background. Though she will read Greenwood Public Library for Negroes, the other, bold letters on slate, will lead her away, out of the frame, a finger pointing left. I want to call her, say wait. But this is history: she can’t linger. She reads the sign that I read: You are Late.
by Natasha Tretheway
From Native Guard (Mariner Books, © 2007).
Rachel Hadas reads her poem “The Red Hat”:
The Red Hat
It started before Christmas. Now our son officially walks to school alone. Semi-alone, it's accurate to say: I or his father track him on his way. He walks up on the east side of West End, we on the west side. Glances can extend (and do) across the street; not eye contact. Already ties are feeling and not fact. Straus Park is where these parallel paths part; he goes alone from there. The watcher's heart stretches, elastic in its love and fear, toward him as we see him disappear, striding briskly. Where two weeks ago, holding a hand, he'd dawdle, dreamy, slow, he now is hustled forward by the pull of something far more powerful than school. The mornings we turn back to are no more than forty minutes longer than before, but they feel vastly different–flimsy, strange, wavering in the eddies of this change, empty, unanchored, perilously light since the red hat vanished from our sight.
Rachel Hadas, Halfway Down the Hall: New and
Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press, 1998.
Thylias Moss reads her poetry:
First Family Portrait
Here is a close-up of the moment after your body slithered in a sudden rush from mine, white frog on my chest. Giddy laughter illuminates the room, release from nine long hours of labor. Sweaty and sunken-eyed, I look delighted--a surprise, since at the time I just felt stunned. Your mouth is open wide, your father's face alight; we three a pantomime of the Nativity--but look how many nameless arms are twined around this mortal scrap, look how you landed in this woven limb-nest, caught by luck in the one safety net the human race can offer, the net you leapt into at birth, far stronger than your parents, stumbling numb toward love.
by Catherine Jagoe
Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?
1. After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see. And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure That someone was there squinting through the dust, Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then, Even for a few nights, into that other life where you And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy? Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove? Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old, Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands Even if it burns. 2. He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That’s Bowie For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play Within a play, he’s trademarked twice. The hours Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out, Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens. But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin. Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives Before take-off, before we find ourselves Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold? The future isn’t what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky Like migratory souls. 3. Bowie is among us. Right here In New York City. In a baseball cap And expensive jeans. Ducking into A deli. Flashing all those teeth At the doorman on his way back up. Or he’s hailing a taxi on Lafayette As the sky clouds over at dusk. He’s in no rush. Doesn’t feel The way you’d think he feels. Doesn’t strut or gloat. Tells jokes. I’ve lived here all these years And never seen him. Like not knowing A comet from a shooting star. But I’ll bet he burns bright, Dragging a tail of white-hot matter The way some of us track tissue Back from the toilet stall. He’s got The whole world under his foot, And we are small alongside, Though there are occasions When a man his size can meet Your eyes for just a blip of time And send a thought like SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE Straight to your mind. Bowie, I want to believe you. Want to feel Your will like the wind before rain. The kind everything simply obeys, Swept up in that hypnotic dance As if something with the power to do so Had looked its way and said: Go ahead.
by Tracy K. Smith
JC was called the Rack at the work farm, aluminum milk pails dangling from his hands. Once a sudden fist crushed the cartilage of nose across his face, but JC only grinned, and the man with the fist stumbled away. JC sings his work farm songs on the street, swaying with black overcoat and guitar, cigarettes cheaper than food. But today he promises four sandwiches, two for each of us. The landlady, a Rumanian widow, has nailed a death mask over JC’s bed, sleeping plaster face of a drowned girl peaceful in the dark. As the girl contemplates water and pigeons batter the window, JC spreads the last deviled ham on two slices of bread, presses them together, then slowly tears four pieces. “Here,” he almost sings, “four sandwiches.”
by Martín Espada
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