The week’s (or thereabouts) best online poetry with excerpts, links and (occasional) commentary by yours truly.
This week I had the great privilege of hearing poet Dr. Roger Reeves who came to Texas A&M University as a visiting writer and alum. During his visit, he shared stories and, later, poems, and I was struck by the realities of his experience. It’s not that I’m unaware of the fact that racism is still alive and well in our nation; there is certainly a good deal of media dedicated to raising awareness of this issue, and as an educator who has spent a large part of my career working with marginalized communities, I am all too well aware of how much ignorance still lives and breathes in the hearts and minds of many of America’s citizens and institutional policies. But, at least until recently, I believed that racism to be mostly the insidious, institutionalized kind that needed rooting out, weeding out. Today’s racism, I thought, needed a light shined upon it. The days of angry white men yelling racist obscenities in broad daylight and without the slightest hint of shame were, I naively thought, gone. I was wrong. Just today, a man in Memphis shared a now viral video of exactly the kind of blatant racism Reeves describes in his haunting poem, “Cross Country.” This online version was published at Blackbird and is this week’s Poetry Weekly spotlight.
When I ran, it rained niggers. Early in October—
the first creases of autumn, a flag-weary sky
in which yellow birds, in flight, slip through the breast-
bone of God and tear at the coarse threads
that keep the morning knit tightly around his heart.
What was it that they sang about the light, their tongues,
the thistles they pluck from the bitter bark
of an allthorn then thrust into the breast of whatever god
or good animal requires eating, a good piercing?
These blond bodies thrashing about above me
were death’s idea of the morning passing. Here,
below this golden altar, the making and unmaking
of my body. The kettle-clank and souring sumac
of a man yelling at the light slipping in and out
of my mouth. What name must I carry above the dust
of this field? Bruised ear, blank body, purple tongue, bloody
God bleeding do you hear me? Deer piss and poison ivy
made pungent by the dew and morning sun rising, do you hear me?
When I ran, it rained niggers. In a ditch along the road,
a pair of wild boars, slain and laid tusk to tail, point,
as if required, in two directions at once, toward my body
pressing the last bits of a hunter’s moon into the tar
of this road and away from the meadow-red light coming
up through the chaff rising above this hectored field
and the man yelling. Nigger in the cicadas tuning up
to tear the morning into tatters. Nigger in the squawk
and clatter of a hen complaining of a hand reaching
below her bottom and removing the warm work
of a cold night. Nigger in the reeds covering
the muck of a beaver’s hard birth. Nigger in the blue
hour of a field once wet with the breath of a lone horse
cracking along its flanks. Nigger in the fog lifting
from this field and the stillbirth it reveals. Nigger
in the running. In the bog at the end of this road.
In the war and in between the wars. Nigger
in the pink salt and eyelashes of a woman I love.
Her mouth pulling water from behind my knee.
Pulling, pulling, pulling. Think: nigger is the god
of our brief salvation. Nigger in a body falling toward a horizon.
Nigger in the twilight that is no longer a twilight
but a black creek fumbling along the spine of a boy
who is running through a city that is running out of water.
Even the lions have left for the mountains.
This is America speaking in translation, in glitter,
in gold grills and fried chicken. Auto-tune this if you must.
Cher will be singing in the brush of static from the attic
radio, believing in love after love or life after love
despite the impure thoughts of evening, despite
the rain soaking the red head of a red bird
now dead in a puddle that refuses to reflect the moon.
“Cross Country” from King Me, 2013 by Roger Reeves, used by permission of Copper Canyon Press.