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 am a tornado child.
I come like a swirl of black and darken up your day;
I whip it all into my womb, lift you and your things,
It was Christmastime,
the balloons needed blowing,
and so in the evening
we sat together to blow
balloons and tell jokes,
and the cool air off the hills
made me think of coffee,
so I said, "Coffee would be nice,"
and he said, "Yes, coffee
would be nice," and smiled
as his thin fingers pulled
the balloons from the plastic bags;
so I went for coffee,
and it takes a few minutes
to make the coffee
and I did not know
if he wanted cow's milk
or condensed milk,
and when I came out
to ask him, he was gone,
just like that, in the time
it took me to think,
cow's milk or condensed;
the balloons sat lightly
on his still lap.
In every crowd, there is the one
with horns, casually moving through
the bodies as if this is the living
room of a creature with horns,
a long cloak and the song of tongues
on the lips of the body. To see
the horns, one's heart rate must
reach one hundred and seventy
five beats per minute, at a rate
faster than the blink of an eye,
for the body with horns lives
in the space between the blink
and light — slow down the blink
and somewhere in the white space
between sight and sightlessness
is twilight, and in that place,
that gap, the stop-time, the horn-
headed creatures appear,
spinning, dancing, strolling
through the crowd; and in the
fever of revelation, you will
understand why the shaman
is filled with the hubris
of creation, why the healer
forgets herself and feels like
angels about to take flight.
My head throbs under
the mosquito mesh, the drums
do not stop through the night,
the one with horns feeds
me sour porridge and nuts
and sways, Welcome, welcome.
I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I'll have the third part.
We who gave, owned nothing,
learned the value of dirt, how
a man or a woman can stand
among the unruly growth,
look far into its limits,
a place of stone and entanglements,
and suddenly understand
the meaning of a name, a deed,
a currency of personhood.
Here, where we have labored
for another man's gain, if it is fine
to own dirt and stone, it is
fine to have a plot where
a body may be planted to rot.
We who have built only
that which others have owned
learn the ritual of trees,
the rites of fruit picked
and eaten, the pleasures
of ownership. We who
have fled with sword
at our backs know the things
they have stolen from us, and we
will walk naked and filthy
into the open field knowing
only that this piece of dirt,
this expanse of nothing,
is the earnest of our faith
in the idea of tomorrow.
We will sell our bones
for a piece of dirt,
we will build new tribes
and plant new seeds
and bury our bones in our dirt.
for Soloman Ephraim Woolfe
Son, who is dat?
Is de African Postman, Daddy
East from Addis Ababa, and then south
deep into the Rift Valley, I can hear the horns
trumpeting over the flat-roofed acacia trees,
see the African women bend low with wood
heavy on their backs, and the cows, goats,
donkeys, mules, sheep, and horses snapped
into obedient herds by sprinting children,
move along the roadside. Life happens here.
I am traveling to the land I have heard about,
Shashamane, the green place, five hundred acres
of Jah's benevolence, and I know now that
I long to hear the rootsman tell me how,
despite rumors of his passing, the natty
keeps on riding, keeps on standing in the fields
of praise to hold on to the faith of roots people.
Brother Solomon, you put the name Ephraim
on your head and carry the face of the true
Rasta, the face of an Ashanti warrior, eyes deep
under heavy lids, and your skin tight as leather,
blacker dan black. I have met you before
on the streets of Kingston, there where you trod
to the hiss and slander of the heathen, you,
natty dread, gathering the people's broken minds
into your calabash. You carry it all, tell them
Return to the roots, the healing shall take place.
You are Burning Spear's voice in the fields of teff,
you tell me of the prophecy of Marcus,
and I listen to you, through the phlegm,
through the gruff of your voice, and suddenly
when I ask about the passing of the Emperor,
you rise up like a staff of correction, your voice
reaching back to the mountains, your warrior
self, your yardman greatness, and you speak
a mystery of those who have ears but won't hear,
and those who have eyes and won't see,
and I know/ that this dread will one day stand
in this soil, and find his feet growing roots,
that soon the earth will be darker for the arrival
of Solomon. Let the heathen rage, let the doubters
scoff, let this Ghanaian youth whose eyes
have seen the face of Jesus Christ, let him too
sit and marvel at the face of the natty.
For this African Postman has forsaken
father and mother, and has come to stand
before His Imperial Majesty, to call only him
Father, so that the Father might call him son,
and the world will carry on its weary march,
and the ibises will swoop in the Ethiopian dusk
and the smoke will rise from wood fires,
and the night will come with news that the rootsman,
after four hundred years of being told
he is homeless, has come home, yes, Jah,
has come home.
Sons and daughters of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie,
Earth Rightful Ruler, without any apology say:
This is the time when I and I and I should come home,
yes, Jah… Nah leggo! Nah leggo! Nah leggo!
I cannot speak the languages
spoken in that vessel,
cannot read the beads
I know this only,
that when the green of land
appeared like light
after the horror of this crossing,
we straightened our backs
and faced the simplicity
of new days with flame.
I know I have the blood of survivors
coursing through my veins;
I know the lament of our loss
must warm us again and again
down in the belly of the whale,
here in the belly of the whale
where we are still searching for homes.
We sing laments so old, so true,
then straighten our backs again.
for Gabriel García Márquez
To tell it, I must call it a dream.
A dream on the Caribbean coast of Colombia
where a beautiful black man serves
thick omelets messy with onions and mushrooms
to an assortment of mavericks—dock workers,
professors, maids, three police officers,
five whores, and a clutch of lawyers—at midnight,
sopping up the curdling rum in their bellies
with thick chunks of white doughy bread.
Antonio, the black chef in flowing linen,
has a hand jutting from his belly
to hold hot coals, and above his head
the interlocking, whirling wheels
with shifting eyes blinking back tears
but following our every movement. The earth
has grown weary with too much blood.
Everyone is counting the casualties
like the score of soccer matches.
I could call it a dream, a kind of
Márquezian apocalypse, the memoir
of a novelist being handed the reams
of paper on which he will prophesy
to the wind. Instead, I will admit
the truth: I have been sitting in a hot
room that smells rich with incense
and the sweat of priests who have lost
the language to comfort the bereaved—
priests whose idols have crumbled
to dust. I am listening to the wind,
to the voice in the wind telling me
to write it all down. So I do.
It all comes from this dark dirt,
memory as casual as a laborer.
Remembrances of ancestors
kept in trinkets, tiny remains
that would madden anthropologists
with their namelessness.
No records, just smells of stories
passing through most tenuous links,
trusting in the birthing of seed from seed;
this calabash bowl of Great-grand
Martha, born a slave's child;
this bundle of socks, unused
thick woolen things for the snow—
he died, Uncle Felix, before the ship
pushed off the Kingston wharf,
nosing for winter, for London.
He never used the socks, just
had them buried with him.
So, sometimes forgetting the panorama
these poems focus like a tunnel,
to a way of seeing time past,
a way of seeing the dead.
The news comes like a stone:
cancer devoured his upful locks
and a sister collected the clumps
of carefully nurtured holiness
in a plastic bag to be matted
into a wig like a crown for the
bald Natty Dread in his casket.
He fell so low and the chemo seemed
like treachery. It all turned
worthless, this fighting, this
scramble for a cure, a way out;
this confession of mortality:
O Jah, O Jah, why has thou
forsaken thy son? O Jah,
the veil is black like this night,
black like the treacherous road;
when it wet it slippery,
see me sliding, tumbling down;
see how this sickness make my soul
black as jet, caution, caution,
and my brothers, all they can say
is walk, walk, walk, walk, walk,
like the bubbling syncopations
of the synthesizer's left-hand jumps.
But who will walk with me,
who will carry the lamp on this path,
whose breathing will reassure me
of a company waiting on the other side?
My brethren will forsake me,
I walk into so many dark places
while I wait for the coming of light.
Reggae rides the airwaves
and this island sound dark
for the passing of a song.