Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
If I believed in a god, he would be a sea god, like the sea
in its predictability—now approach, now recede—beneath
such a god I would not mind, I think, being the shore, say of the sea
what you will, it’s the shore that endures the routine loss
without which what strategies would there be for softening
the hollowness that any victory, give it time, comes with,
how curb the risk of arrogance, with its doomed but
not undangerous hound, complacency?
… I made this for you—
put it on. I know it’s not going to matter whether the decisions
I made were the ones eventually I even meant to make, or
should have, or should have thought maybe more than
twice about. What’s history anyway, except—according to
the latest mouth saying so—just what happened: I flourished
undramatically, to no apparent purpose, like pretty much
everyone. The sea dragged the shore; the shore suffered the sea.
July 13, 2013
Saturday afternoon: in the driveway between buildings they blow up
balloons—yellow, red, blue—for a 3-year-old’s party.
The intermittent pops startle me like random gunfire—remind me
of birthdays brown boys will no longer celebrate.
The DJ, having set up the speakers, begins to play—the music, a rapid fire
of bass thump, commandeers the apartment. We have no choice but leave.
An art show: canvases colored with boxes and lines—a grid of red
on a backdrop of yellow. We speak of the abstract with wine in our mouths.
Meanwhile, in an antechamber, six are sequestered. They speak of mali-
cious intent, blood, evidence, testimony—murder versus manslaughter.
We arrive home to a throng of brown bodies, hands clutching red cups,
and music: its insistent treble stabbing the ears.
Inside, we slam all windows, but the music still blares as my niece shoots
people on the video game—its sounds are too realistic to bear.
Instead, the news, a verdict is in: not guilty. And everything is a blur
of sound, my heart beating so fast I put a hand to my chest.
I watch the TV screen: a collage of abstractions—spotlights, microphones,
smiles, handwritten signs. I stare, as if it were a painting—
a smear of twisted faces smothered in gesso and oil, a grid of red
on a backdrop of yellow—to make sense of.
The party continues. The 3-year-old probably in bed dreaming of melted
ice cream, and I am tired of partying.
There is a police station a half block away and I want it to burn. Instead,
only the smoke of weed, the meaningless music droning on,
the popping of balloons. Sunday morning, the birds are angry—their
chirping a noisy chant: NO NO NO NO. Outside, the rubbery flesh
of balloons color the driveway like splotches of paint. In an instant,
those still lives of heave and breath—gone in a pop.
There was an apple tree in the yard —
this would have been
forty years ago — behind,
only meadows. Drifts
of crocus in the damp grass.
I stood at that window:
late April. Spring
flowers in the neighbor’s yard.
How many times, really, did the tree
flower on my birthday,
the exact day, not
before, not after? Substitution
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from the tennis courts —
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.
On a warm night in upstate
New York during the summer
of 1948, Charlie Parker got out
of a brand new Pontiac, the bass
player from his quintet was behind
the wheel. Clubs along 57th Street
were an hour behind them. Parker
had grabbed the case with his sax
in it from the back seat and walked
out onto a field. He was off drugs,
clean for at least six months
but knew he’d never be clean
as the air he breathed.
A herd of cows watched him walk
in front of them, place the case
on the grass, open it and take out
a bent piece of sky the color of dawn.
Then he blew on it as his fingers
like a flock of small dark birds flew
up and down. The cows listened, stopped
chewing but couldn’t prevent their tails
from swinging like the Basie rhythm
section. Sounds they never heard
came out of a hole in the sky.
Then it stopped. He placed it back
in the box and walked away. Within
hours the green grass they began
chewing again turned the milk in
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
Is just frosting
On somebody else’s
And so must be
Learn how to
My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
for j. byrd
i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.