Three Poems

 

 

On Extinction

 

Dear Reader,

Please, pardon my obsession

with the end of things.

I was born of two Baptists:

one backslidden though no less

fervent when it came to the law,

the cross, the grain of me

& my sister’s hair. I was born

nonwhite in the 1980s,

arrived in the wake of four girls

slumped against a project wall

resembling a long ellipsis, heron

(my father’s preferred pronunciation)

having coaxed their heads

into solemn agreement.

Mama knew three of the dying

personally, but this isn’t about her,

so much as how this scene became a part

of our extended family, its argument

clear as a bullet’s signature: son,

to live in this flesh is to worship agility,

to call death by its government name.

The woman across the table is scared to raise

her son, fears he will be killed by police, says this

outright, over soup, expecting nothing.

My first thought is of the landscape.

For a moment, all I can see is flat green oblivion,

unchecked flora where fourth-graders

once sped across the open. In 1896,

Frederick Hoffman claimed every Negro

in the U.S. would be dead by the end of the year

of my younger brother’s birth. To his credit,

Hoffman dreamt of neither badge nor bullet,

but dysentery, tuberculosis, killers

we could not touch or beg for clemency.

Hence, when I consider extinction,

I do not think of sad men with guns,

or Hoffman standing by the chalkboard

in his office, discerning algorithms

for the dead, but the sheer breadth

of our refusal, how my mother,

without stopping even to write a poem about it,

woke up yesterday, and this morning again.

 

Plural

 

You know I ain’t scared to lose you.

—Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn aka Future Vandross

 

In the name of solidarity, I have given

myself over to the particular

fixations of my age: ducking

sleep, day drinking

with my internet

friends, three or four

Instagram self-portraits

on the downtown A,

left arm angled high

enough to catch collarbone.

I’m learning how to participate

in the world. Why

just last week, I said hello

to a woman wearing a dress made of smoke

spilling Stella over both her hands

in a charming sort of way

as Trina offered a theory

of radical black self

-determination in the background

each line giving fresh velocity

to the room & yes I do

of course

mean that Trina

whose unfettered praise

of the shaking of the booty

has always been

to my mind

a kind of talisman,

laic prayer lending valor

to the bashful & now

the woman in white

is talking to me

about the history of Liberia

& her favorite podcasts,

how good it feels

to see this many people dancing

in a city best known

for its casual indifference,

the impossible farness

between a mass of bodies

flush as paper sheaves

on the bus ride home,

six to an apartment built

for one, poverty & proximity

like two bladed halves

of the same

long equation.

She types her number

into my right palm

& the boys go wild,

stain the floor

with handfuls of hyacinth

petals they cast

as if aspiration

into the soft,

black air.

I’m pretty good

at not loving

anything enough

to fear its ruin.

The cruel speed

of our guaranteed

obsolescence suits

me. This way

I get to be

at least one

of my favorite

versions of myself

every other week:

brooding philosopher,

race man, public apology

connoisseur, without

the pressure

of your seeing

where I keep

the parts I know

you would one day

wish I tucked away

or else killed

somewhere private

so you didn’t

have to smell

the fire & all

I can think of

these days as I stare

across the table

past the drinks

with beautiful names

is how my friend Ibrahim

used to say I’m not single,

I’m plural & we all laughed

like we understood

 

Praise House

 

It all started with the Hammond B-3

electric organ I saw at the thrift store

on 234th street around 2 in the afternoon,

while everyone else was in a seminar

on Hegel, feigning agreement.

I captured the image of the holy

device on my new phone, sent it off to all

the fellow former saints I spend my days

alongside. Within minutes, we had a space

and a plan. Our agnostic church

would meet in my apartment every

other week, just the three of us

on beanbags and half-broken

chairs, belting the hymns our mothers

sewed into our hands.

For a name, Jamall suggests First

Humanist Church of Washington Heights

but Jeremy finds that rather dull

& I don’t disagree strongly enough,

so we toss out a few more, most

involving Brooks, Baraka, Hughes,

three or four other poets who called god

lonely—not as insult, but as

a critique of perfection, a guess

at what sovereignty does

to one’s social life—before

settling on Praise House,

a unanimous choice once

I pulled up the photo of a man

old enough to have lived

when it was illegal to do

what we do for a living now,

his arms akimbo, standing

in front of an oat-white lean-to,

the name of our new sanctuary

typeset across the side.

Though I do not know if this building

bore any relation to what our parents

would call sacred, if those living

at the borders of this black

& white still did anything more

than walk into a splintering box

& cry the hours into their hands,

I can say, without certainty

or shame, that we have come

here with no aim higher than that

kind of blood & saltwater prayer.

As all those who went before,

we know god is an event,

that the spirit will not fall

if the music ain’t right. Thus,

gathered in the name of what

gathers us, we lose our selves

in spite of our dialectical

minds, invite the groove

to take us in, take us

higher, alight.