Reginald Shepherd

(April 10, 1963 – September 10, 2008 / New York City)

Skin Trade - Poem by Reginald Shepherd

And then I said, That's what it means
to testify: to sit in the locked dark muttering
when you should be dead to the world. The muse
just shrugged and shaded his blue eyes. So naturally
I followed him down to his father's house
by the river, a converted factory in the old
industrial park: somewhere to sit
on threadbare cushions eating my words
and his promises, safe as milk
that dries the throat. If I had a home,
he'd be that unmade bed. He's my America
twisted in dirty sheets, my inspiration
for a sleepless night. No getting around that
white skin.
He throws things out the window
he should keep; he collects things
he should feed to the river. He takes me
down. While there, I pick them up.

The river always does this to me:
gulls squawking and the smell of paper mills
upstream, air crowded with effluents
like riding the bus underwater. I'm spending nights
in the polluted current, teaching sunken bodies how
to swim. My feet always stay wet. Sometimes
I leave footprints the shape of blood; sometimes glass
flows through broken veins, and I glitter.
Every other step refers to white men
and their names. The spaces in between
are mine. Back of the bus with you,
nigger. They're turning warehouses
into condos, I'm selling everything
at clearance prices: here's a bronze star
for suffering quietly like a good
boy.
River of salt, will I see my love again?
Cold viscous water holds its course even after
it's gone. Throw a face into it and you'll never look
again, throw a voice and you'll hear sobbing
all the way down. Narcissus, that's my flower
forced in January, black-eyed bells echoing
sluggish eddies. Who hit him first?

The muse has covered his face
with his hands. It's just a reflex
of the historical storm that sired him:
something to say, "The sun is beating down
too hard on my pith helmet, the oil slick
on the river's not my fault, when are you going
home?" What he doesn't want to see, he doesn't
see. In the sludge that drowns the river, rats
pick fights with the debris. He calls them all
by their first names, he's looking through his fingers
like a fence. They make good neighbors. His friends
make do with what they can. They drink beer
from sewer-colored bottles in the dry stream
bed, powdered milk of human kindness and evaporated
silt. They stay by the river till past
sunrise, crooning a lullaby
to help it to sleep. The words
of their drinking songs are scrawled on the ceiling,
Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin: a madrigal
for the millennium's end.
I'm counting
down the days in someone else's
unmade bed, let these things break
their hold on me. The world
would like to see me dead, another gone
black man. I'm still awake.


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Read poems about / on: river, inspiration, january, sometimes, america, home, flower, star, father, house, world, water, sleep, dark, sun, swimming, friend



Poem Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003



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