21st Century Poets

Facing It

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. 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.

    3. Flood

    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?


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.


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.


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
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


Four Sandwiches

     —Washington, D.C.

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