He was a complicated man. At least
that’s what I think he would have been
saying to my great-great-great-great grandmother
after stroking her hair a final time
and standing over her spent body. This is always his
excuse when she asks about the boy
spending time with his father or her being
allowed in the house when Fillmore visits
in a few months. He tells her the most beautiful things
have to live in darkness.
He promises the most beautiful thing
God ever made was the dark
center of a mountain and he swears
he’ll take her through a mountain one day
and let her sit by the window and watch the world
of Montgomery grow small behind her.
“Wouldn’t that be sweet?” He never does
wait for an answer before he leaves
to check on the trains and the bodies dropped
off by the trains for the Commerce Street auctions
and the bodies whittled down to ghosts
to keep the tracks in front of the trains.
He leaves and I am left with nothing
but my great-great-great-great grandmother
and all the bright and blight-stricken
universes growing inside of her.
And even the worst poets know trauma
travels through time so some of her and him
have to be here with me. Now, I can blame
someone for my love of the Trojan War
because wealthy men always love horses and the beautiful
poem says he gave the baby boy a wooden horse
for a birthday gift and the boy never saw it
as a trap until the boy cut his foot on a splinter
and the cut leads to a fever that won’t stop burning
through my bloodline. My love
for Hector and Homer finally makes sense
because the darkest part of my blood was teaching me
to love rapists years before I discovered these names
in the back of the family reunion pamphlet.
And he had to be there, he had to be a proud white ghost
in the room whenever I mentioned Caesar or Alexander
or Charlemagne to make a room see me
as something other than a black boy who could read
Latin. He had to see me as more because he had to
see me as his, and every master needs a servant
who can prove his master’s glory.
But the beautiful poem ends with love
for my great-great-great-great grandmother.
And the beautiful poem lets me hold her
in the light and shame the sun for shining
on a world that did to her what it did to her.
And the beautiful poem would say that she shines
through me when I learn to take all the spikes
this country drives into me and transmute them
into Orphic songs that wake the dead and pull the earth
into a tear-streaked smile. But I’m afraid of her
being most like me when I dream of black
holes and how they are allowed laugh when they break free
of every law man could ever name.
She’s there when I pray to be less,
when I pray for a name the earth will never catch
on its tongue, a name never whispered in the dead
of night, a name never drifted over whiskey stained lips.
She’s there in my chest when I pray for a heart
neither hand nor hope can grip.
She’s there in the gentlest dusks
when I pray to be reborn
as a star who died before men could worry it with a wish.
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH