From Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color
From American Sublime
“Ars Poetica #100: I Believe”
“Ars Poetica #28: African Leave-Taking Disorder”
“Ars Poetica #92: Marcus Garvey on Elocution”
“Ars Poetica #1002: Rally”
From Antebellum Dream Book
“Islands Number Four”
From Body of Life
“Stravinsky in L.A.”
“At the Beach”
From The Venus Hottentot
“The Venus Hottentot (1825)”
“A Poem for Nelson Mandela”
From American Sublime
On suffering, which is real.
On the mouth that never closes,
the air that dries the mouth.
On the miraculous dying body,
its greens and purples.
On the beauty of hair itself.
On the dazzling toddler:
“Like eggplant,” he says,
when you say “Vegetable,”
“Chrysanthemum” to “Flower.”
On his grandmother’s suffering, larger
than vanished skyscrapers,
other things too big. For her glory
that goes along with it,
glory of grown children’s vigil,
communal fealty, glory
of the body that operates
even as it falls apart, the body
that can no longer even make fever
but nonetheless burns
florid and bright and magnificent
as it dims, as it shrinks,
as it turns to something else.
oyster shell, drawstring pouch, dry bones.
Gris gris in the rafters.
Hoodoo in the sleeping nook.
Mojo in Linda Brent’s crawlspace.
Nineteenth century corncob cosmogram
set on the dirt floor, beneath the slant roof,
left intact the afternoon
that someone came and told those slaves
Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said
“Every ‘I’ is a
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each
Ars Poetica #28: African Leave-Taking
The talk is good. The two friends
at the door. Urban crickets sing with them.
There is no after the supper and talk.
The talk is good. These two friends linger
at the door, half in, half out, ‘til
decides to walk the other home. And so
they walk, more talk, the new doorstep,
nightgowned wife who shakes her head and smiles
from the bedroom window as the men
in love and the crickets sing along.
The joke would be if the one now home
walked the other one home, where they started,
to keep talking, and so on: “African
Leave-Taking Disorder,” which names her children
everywhere trying to come back together
From Antebellum Dream Book
Islands Number Four
Agnes Martin, Islands Number Four,
Repeated ovals on a grid, what appears
To be perfect is handmade, disturbed.
Tobacco brown saturates canvas to burlap,
Clean form from a distance, up close, her hand.
All wrack and bramble to oval and grid.
Hollows in the body, containers for grief.
What looks to be perfect is not perfect.
Odd oval portholes that flood with
Description of a Slave Ship, 1789:
Same imperfect ovals, calligraphic hand.
At a distance, pattern. Up close, bodies
Doubled and doubled, serried and stacked
In the manner of galleries in a church,
In full ships on their sides or on each other.
Isle of woe, two-by-two, spoon-fashion,
Not unfrequently found dead in the morning.
Slave ships, the not pure, imperfect ovals,
Portholes through which they would never see home,
The flesh rubbed off their shoulders, elbows, hips.
Barracoon, sarcophagus, indestructible grief
Nesting in the hollows of the abdomen.
The slave ship empty, its cargo landed
And sold for twelve ounces of gold apiece
Or gone overboard. Islands. Aftermath.
a soggy, bloody crotch, is
sharp jets of breast milk shot straight across the room,
is gaudy, mustard-colored poop, is
postpartum tears that soak the baby’s lovely head.
Then everything dries and disappears
Then everything dries and disappears
is day into night into day,
light into dark into light, semi-
and full-fledged, hyperconscious,
is funky, is funny: the baby farts,
we laugh. The baby burps, we smile, say “Yes.”
The baby poops, his whole body stiffens,
then steam heat floods the pipes.
He slashes his nose with nails we cannot bear to trim,
takes a nap, and the wounds disappear.
The spirit lives in your squirts and coos.
Your noises and fluids are what you do.
is what we cannot see: you speak to the birds,
the birds speak back, is solemn,
singing, funky, frightening,
buckets of tears on the baby’s lovely head, is
“One day you’ll forget
the baby,” Mother says,
“as if he were a pocketbook, a bag of groceries,
something you leave on a kitchen counter-top.
I left you once, put on my coat and hat,
remembered my pocketbook, the top and bottom locks,
got all the way to the elevator before I realized.
It only happens once.”
We lay on the bed and we rode the grey
apricot juice in a glass in your hand,
single color in this grey light like November.
It is April. We rock.
Then the miracle which is always a
miracle happens in many stages,
then the mouth which opens,
I was just pregnant,
am no longer pregnant,
see myself in my memory
in overalls, sensible shoes.
Shockingly vital, mammoth giblet,
the second living thing to break free
of my body in fifteen minutes.
The midwife presents it on a platter.
We do not eat, have no Tupperware
to take it home and sanctify a tree.
Instead, we marvel at my cast-off
the almost-pulsing slab, bloody mesa,
what lived moments ago and now has died.
Now I must take the baby to my breast.
There is no mother here but me.
The midwife discards the placenta.
What do you make of this rain, little
night rain that your parents have loved all their lives?
From 2 to 3 “The Streets of
San Francisco” comes on each night,
and I watch Karl Malden stop crime, and listen
to the mouse-squeak of your suckling,
behold your avid jaws,
your black eyes: otter, ocelot,
my whelp, my cub, my seapup.
In the days before you smile at me
or call me Mama or love me,
love is all tit, all wheat-smelling milk, humid crook of the arm
where your warm, damp head seems to
I pretend your clasping my finger means you love me
Dreamt the baby
was born again,
arrived this time in a Moses basket,
had a crone’s face,
a Senegalese head wrap,
a pendulous lower lip.
Mamma Zememesh, I dreamt your sister’s
They floated around me as objects, satellites:
a spinning, turning, turning, spin.
I think the baby needs to eat. The
Look! He’s making sucking noises. Look!
His fist is in his mouth.
Why does the baby sleep all day? How
does the baby sleep at night? Three feedings? Huhn.
You need to let that baby cry.
You need to pick that baby up.
You need to put that baby down.
Kiss the baby too much, he’ll get heartburn.
What are those bumps on the baby’s face?
Why is the baby crying so?
That baby needs to eat, and now.
I dream the OB-Gyn is here
to spend the night with us. He wears
his white coat and his stethoscope
to bed, looks like a loaf
of whole wheat bread. Good-night, we say,
and shut our eyes.
The next day
he’s up early, jolly. “Time
to have this baby! Tally ho!” And so we do.
All of my aunties chatting like crows
on a line,
all of my aunties on electric breast pumps,
the double kind, one for each exhausted tit.
Mommy, the baby’s head popped
off! A tiny head,
white, wet, bloodless, heartbeat still on the soft spot.
She tells me, Stick it back on, Girl. Don’t be afraid.
You can’t show your children
A paraffin seam bubbles on his scalp.
A pink cicatrix lines his lovely neck.
Giving birth is like jazz, something
then all of it. Long, elegant boats,
blood-boiling sunshine, human cargo,
a handmade kite —
No longer a celebrity, pregnant lady, expectant.
It has happened; you are here,
each dram you drain a step away
from flushed and floating, lush and curled.
Now you are the pink one, the movie star.
It has happened. You are here,
and you sing, mewl, holler, peep,
swallow the light and bubble it back,
shine, contain multitudes, gleam. You
are the new one, the movie star,
and birth is like jazz,
from silence and blood, silence
Maryland State Correctional Facility
Baltimore County Branch, has undergone a face-lift.
Cells are white and ungraffitied, roomlike, surprisingly airy.
This is where I must spend the next year, eating slop from tin trays,
facing women much tougher than I am, finding out if I am brave.
Though I do not know what I took, I know I took something.
On Exercise Day, walk the streets of the city you grew up in,
in my case, D.C., from pillar to post, Adams-Morgan to Anacostia,
Shaw to Southwest, Logan to Chevy Chase Circles,
recalling every misbegotten everything, lamenting, repenting.
How my parents keen and weep, scheme to spring me,
intercept me at corners with bus tokens, pass keys, files baked in cakes.
Komunyakaa the poet says, don’t write what you know,
write what you are willing to discover, so I will
spend this year, these long days, meditating on what I am accused of
in the white rooms, city streets, communal showers, mess hall,
where all around me sin and not sin is scraped off tin trays
into oversized sinks, all that excess, scraped off and rinsed away.
Sometimes I think about Great-Uncle
Paul who left Tuskeegee,
Alabama to become a forester in Oregon and in so doing
became fundamentally white for the rest of his life, except
when he travelled without his white wife to visit his siblings —
now in New York, now in Harlem, USA — just as pale-skinned,
as straight-haired, as blue-eyed as Paul, and black. Paul never told
he was white, he just didn’t say that he was black, and who could
an Oregon forester in 1930 as anything other than white?
The siblings in Harlem each morning ensured
no one confused them for anything other than what they were, black.
They were black! Brown-skinned spouses reduced confusion.
Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
When Paul came East alone he was as they were, their brother.
The poet invents heroic moments where
the pale black ancestor stands up
on behalf of the race. The poet imagines Great-Uncle Paul
in cool, sagey groves counting rings in redwood trunks,
imagines pencil markings in a ledger book, classifications,
imagines a sidelong look from an ivory spouse who is learning
her husband’s caesuras. She can see silent spaces
but not what they signify, graphite markings in a forester’s code.
Many others have told, and not told,
The one time Great-Uncle Paul brought his wife to New York
he asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,
and that is where the story ends: ivory siblings who would not
see their brother without their telltale spouses.
What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
Here a poem tells a story, a story about race.
From Body of Life
Stravinsky in L.A.
white pleated trousers, peering through green
sunshades, looking for the way the sun is red
noise, how locusts hiss to replicate the sun.
What is the visual equivalent
of syncopation? Rows of seared palms wrinkle
in the heat waves through green glass. Sprinklers
tick, tick, tick. The Watts Towers aim to split
the sky into chroma, spires tiled with rubble
nothing less than aspiration. I’ve left
minarets for sun and syncopation,
sixty-seven shades of green which I have
counted, beginning: palm leaves, front and back,
luncheon pickle, bottle glass, etcetera.
One day I will comprehend the different
grades of red. On that day I will comprehend
these people, rhythms, jazz, Simon Rodia,
Watts, Los Angeles, aspiration.
From The Venus Hottentot
The Venus Hottentot (1825)
Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful
blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.
A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary
crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles
of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will
ever see what I see
through this microscope..
crowd my notebook pages,
and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers
signify aspects of
will float inside a labeled
pickling jar in the Musée
de l’Homme on a shelf
above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”
Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.
There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.
I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk
dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar-studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.
That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? Or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays
at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is Prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.
“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
towards the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.
Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak
English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid brother. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach
is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts
and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence, I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian
archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have not forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up
from this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.