Kwame Dawes Poems

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For August Wilson

No one quarrels here, no one has learned
the yell of discontent—instead, here in Sumter
we learn to grow silent, build a stone


I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
mercantilistic madness.

We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,

so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants

may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those

devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp

I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.

Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.

If we don't, who will
recall in requiem
the scattering of my tribe?

In every reggae chant
stepping proud against Babylon
I hear a blue note

of lament, sweet requiem
for the countless dead,
skanking feet among shell,

coral, rainbow adze,
webbed feet, making as if

to lift, soar, fly into new days.


Last night
you look

at me hard
then soft

like you see

old and sad
in me.

Alado Seanadra

Something like forty runs to pile up in fifteen overs
with the sun round like power over the compound.
I prayed like hell out there on the boundary

far from the scorers talking Test cricket as if this game
was another day in the sun. I prayed like hell.
I had made something like twenty - out to a stupid short ball

which should have been dispatched to mid-wicket with ease.
But too greedy, I got a top edge,
and was caught looking naked as a fool in the blazing

midmorning. Now, like a mockery, the bowling was soup
but the boys still struggling to put one single before a next.
So I prayed like hell out there on the boundary, trying to will

a flaming red four my way. Still, I should have known,
after all, God's dilemma: We playing a Catholic team
that always prayed before each game. And where their chapel

was a shrine, ours, well sometimes goats get away
inside there; and once we did a play right there using the altar
as a stage. So I tried making deals with the Almighty,

taking out a next mortgage on my soul; asking him to
strengthen the loins of Washy who looking alone in the wilderness
out there in the blaze, bedlamized by the googly

turning on the rough patch outside off-stump.
Washy went playing at air, and the wickets kept falling
until it was Alado, flamboyant with his windmill stretch action,

his fancy afro and smile, strutting out to the wicket
still dizzy with the success of his bowling that morning.
And Alado take his guard loud, loud to the umpire:

"Middle and leg, please." Lean back till his spine crack.
Alado, slow like sugar, put on the tips, prolonging the agony.
Now, Alado surveyin' the field, from boundary to

boundary as if somebody was about to move a stone,
and the boys start to wonder if this was some
secret weapon, some special plan to win the match

in a trickifying way. I fantasised a miracle
in that moment, but I blame the sun for that.
And then the boy take his stance. Classic poise, bat tapping,

looking like a test class stroke-player, toes shuffling,
waiting for the pace bowler sprinting stallion along the worn
dry grass. Up to the wicket, he bowls, good length ball,

dead on mid and off. Alado shift the front foot forward,
sheer poise and style, head down according to the Boycott book,
elbow up, and unleash a full cover drive,

bat like flying fish catching the sun. And even when we heard
the clunk of the stumps, and see the bails take off,
we all still searching the extra cover boundary

to see the ball slap the boards. Alado Test stay posed off
like that for Lord knows how long. Big smile in his eyes
staring at the ball he must have hit in his dreams.

The umpire signal end of play with the gathering of the bails
and the pulling of the stumps. My soul was saved that day,
the year we never made the finals.


A truckload of fresh watermelons,
lemon-green goodness on a slouching
truck, cutting through so many states:
Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland,
into the smoke-heavy Pennsylvania cities;
from red dirt like a land soaked
in blood to the dark loam of this new
land—from chaos to the orderly
silence of the wolf country—Pittsburgh's
dark uneven skyline, where
we have found shelter
while the crippled leader
waits to promise healing
for a nation starving
on itself. Two men, dusty
from the Parchman Farm,
their eyes still hungry
with dreams, laugh bitter
laughs, carrying the iron
of purpose in them. Hear
the engine clunking, hear
the steel of a new century
creaking. There is blood
in the sky—at dawn, the city
takes them in like a woman.
Inside them all memory
becomes the fiction of survival—
here the dead have hands
that can caress and heal,
hands that can push a living
body into a grave, hold it there,
and the living get to sing it.
This is a nation of young men,
dark with the legacies
of brokenness, men who know
that life is short, that the world
brings blood, that peace
is a night of quiet repose
while the dogs howl in the woods,
men who know the comfort
of steel, cold as mist at dawn,
pure burnished steel.


For August Wilson

No one quarrels here, no one has learned
the yell of discontent—instead, here in Sumter
we learn to grow silent, build a stone
of resolve, learn to nod, learn to close
in the flame of shame and anger
in our hearts, learn to petrify it so,
and the more we quiet our ire,
the heavier the stone; this alchemy
of concrete in the vein, the sludge
of affront, until even that will calcify
and the heart, at last, will stop,
unassailable, unmovable, adamant.

Find me a man who will stand
on a blasted hill and shout,
find me a woman who will break
into shouts, who will let loose
a river of lament, find the howl
of the spirit, teach us the tongues
of the angry so that our blood,
my pulse—our hearts flow
with the warm healing of anger.

You, August, have carried in your belly
every song of affront your characters
have spoken, and maybe you waited
too long to howl against the night,
but each evening on some wooden
stage, these men and women,
learn to sing songs lost for centuries,
learn the healing of talk, the calming
of quarrel, the music of contention,
and in this cacophonic chorus,
we find the ritual of living.


First your dog dies and you pray
for the Holy Spirit to raise the inept
lump in the sack, but Jesus' name
is no magic charm; sunsets and the
flies are gathering. That is how faith
dies. By dawn you know death;
the way it arrives and then grows
silent. Death wins. So you walk
out to the tangle of thorny weeds behind
the barn; and you coax a black
cat to your fingers. You let it lick
milk and spit from your hand before
you squeeze its neck until it messes
itself, it claws tearing your skin,
its eyes growing into saucers.
A dead cat is light as a live
one and not stiff, not yet. You
grab its tail and fling it as
far as you can. The crows find
it first; by then the stench
of the hog pens hides the canker
of death. Now you know the power
of death, that you have it,
that you can take life in a second
and wake the same the next day.
This is why you can't fear death.
You have seen the broken neck
of a man in a well, you know who
pushed him over the lip of the well,
tumbling down; you know all about
blood on the ground. You know that
a dead dog is a dead cat is a dead
man. Now you look a white man
in the face, talk to him about
cotton prices and the cost of land,
laugh your wide open mouthed laugh
in his face, and he knows one thing
about you: that you know the power
of death, and you will die as easily
as live. This is how a man seizes
what he wants, how a man
turns the world over in dreams,
eats a solid meal and waits
for death to come like nothing,
like the open sky, like light
at early morning. Like a man
in a red pin striped trousers, a black
top hat, a yellow scarf
and a kerchief dipped in eau
de cologne to cut through
the stench coming from his mouth.


‘Palms of Victory / Deliverance is here!'
1980 Jamaica Labour Party campaign song

On Kingston's flat worn earth,
everything is hard as glass.
The sun smashes into the city - no breath,
no wind, just the engulfing, asthmatic noonday.

We move with the slow preservation
of people saving their strength
for a harsher time. 1980:
this land has bled - so many betrayals -
and the indiscriminate blooding of hope
has left us quivering, pale,
void, the collapsed possibilities
causing us to limp. We are a country
on the edge of the manic euphoria
of a new decade: Reagan's nodding
grin ripples across the basin's
surface. We dare to dream
that in the spin and tongues of Kapo
perhaps we too will fly this time,
will lift ourselves from the slough
of that dream-maker's decade -
the '70s when we learned things only
before suspected: our capacity for blood,
our ability to walk through a shattered
city, picking our routine way to work
each morning. We are so used now to the ruins,
perhaps more than that, perhaps to wearing
our sackcloth and ash as signs of our
hope, the vanity of survival.

In that decade when a locksman
could prance the streets with a silver
magic trail in his wake, how we fought
to be poor, to be sufferers, to say
Looking at you the better one; how
we cultivated our burden-bearing,
white-squall, hungry belly,
burlap-wearing, Cariba-suited
socialist dream; how reggae
with its staple of faith, fame
and fortune spoke its revelation
from the speakers of souped-up
BMWs. Gone now, all gone.

We have thrown off that dead skin now;
and the fleets of squat Ladas
are rusting, O Havana.
We've grown too cynical for such austerity
or perhaps we did not suffer enough.
So on such blank and startled days, we dream
of flight. How we hope: Dance!
Dance, damn it! Dance, damn it! Be happy!
Our apocalypse echoes on the sound system
and we dance. These laws, these new laws,
these palm leaves, these clamouring bells,
so desperate for deliverance,
this insipid green in the future, and we all
stare at the unflinching sky
and will our hearts to fly.


O Christ, my craft and the long time it is taking!
Derek Walcott

In the shade of the sea grape trees the air is tart
with the sweet and sour of stewed fruit rotting
about his sandaled feet. His skin,
still Boston pale and preserved with Brahman
devotion by the hawkish woman
who smells cancer in each tropical wind,
is caged in shadows. I know those worn eyes,
their feline gleam, mischief riddled;
his upper lip lined with a thin stripe
of tangerine, the curled up nervousness
of a freshly shaved mustache. He is old
and cared for. He accepts mashed food
though he still has teeth - she insists and love
is about atoning for the guilt
of those goatish years in New England.
A prophet's kind of old. Old like casket-
aged genius. Above, a gull surveys
the island, stitches loops thorough the sea and sky -
an even horizon, the bias on which
teeters a landscape, this dark loam of tradition
in which seeds split into tender leaves.


O Christ, my craft and the long time it is taking!
Derek Walcott

I carry the weight of your shadow always,
while I pick through your things for the concordance
of your invented icons for this archipelago.
Any announcement of your passing
is premature. So to find my own strength,
I seek out your splendid weaknesses.
Your last poems are free of the bombast
of any gaudy garments, I can see the knobs
of your knees scarred by the surgeon's incisions
to siphon water and blood from bone;
I stare at your naked torso - the teats
hairy, the hint of a barreled beauty
beneath the folding skin. I turn away
as from a mirror. I am sipping your blood,
tapping the aged sap of your days while you grow
pale. You are painting on the beach, this is how
the poem began - I am watching you watching
the painting take shape. I have stared long enough
that I can predict your next stroke - your dip
into palette, your grunts, your contemplative
moments, a poised crane waiting for the right
instance to plunge and make crimson ribbons
on a slow moving river. These islands
give delight, sweet water with berries,
the impossible theologies
of reggae, its metaphysics so right
for the inconstant seasons of sun and muscular
storm - you can hear the shape of a landscape
in the groan of the wind against the breadfruit
fronds. I was jealous when at twenty, I found
a slim volume of poems you had written
before you reached sixteen. It has stitched in me
a strange sense of a lie, as if all this
will be revealed to be dust - as if I learned
to pretend one day, and have yet to be found out.

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