Monthly Archives: February 2016

Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1906

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A master of lyric verse, Paul Laurence Dunbar drew on many poetic traditions, writing mainly formal poetry. His famous rondeau, “We Wear the Mask,” below, was my model for learning the rondeau, a powerful form when used well, as Dunbar certainly did. The poet Nikki Giovanni was instrumental in helping bring his work to light as a poetic genius and one of the first African-American great poets to be recognized, even in his own, racially oppressive and segregated time. I also include below his poem, “Sympathy,” which inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Sympathy

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

We Wear the Mask

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

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My Review of The Lillian Trilogy published!!

Autostraddle has published my review of Mary Meriam’s comprehensive poetry collection The Lillian Trilogy here! It’s a fantastic book for anyone to read, a delight. Feminist, Lesbian, Sensual, full of subtle and penetrating rhyme and rhythm, seething in its exposure of injustice and moving in its declarations of pain and sorrow. Check it out!

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Poetry, Poetry Books, Poetry in forms, Poets, Publications, Siham Karami, women poets, Women's poetry

Lucille Clifton, Luminary 1936-2010

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Lucille Clifton’s much-lauded poetry shines through today with its eloquent simplicity and choice of worthy topics. But whatever I say about her many awards and her long and influential career cannot speak for her like her poems. Here are three on very different subjects, but all of them testimony to both the evil and the transcendence of humanity.

the lost baby poem

BY Lucille Clifton

the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned

you would have been born into winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car we would have made the thin
walk over genesee hill into the canada wind
to watch you slip like ice into strangers’ hands
you would have fallen naked as snow into winter
if you were here i could tell you these
and some other things

if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers pour over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller
of seas let black men call me stranger
always for your never named sake

slaveships

BY Lucille Clifton

loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks for months
in the sweat and stink
of our own breathing
Jesus
why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel
where the prayers we never tell
and hot and red
as our bloody ankles
Jesus
Angel
can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus Angel Grace of God
onto a heathen country
Jesus
Angel
ever again
can this tongue speak
can these bones walk
Grace Of God
can this sin live

the message of crazy horse

BY Lucille Clifton

i would sit in the center of the world,
the Black Hills hooped around me and
dream of my dancing horse. my wife

was Black Shawl who gave me the daughter
i called They Are Afraid Of Her.
i was afraid of nothing

except Black Buffalo Woman.
my love for her i wore
instead of feathers. i did not dance

i dreamed. i am dreaming now
across the worlds. my medicine is strong.
my medicine is strong in the Black basket
of these fingers. i come again through this

Black Buffalo woman. hear me;
the hoop of the world is breaking.
fire burns in the four directions.
the dreamers are running away from the hills.
i have seen it. i am crazy horse.

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Amiri Baraka, Revolutionary Poet 1934-2014

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Amiri Baraka is one of the most controversial names in poetry, a field not known particularly for its controversy, and I say “is” because even since his death in 2014 his work continues to provoke. Now that certainly says something about the power of his poetry. His initial fame came as one of the beat poets, under his birth name, Leroi Jones. But under both names, his focus has always been a social and political one, mainly as a stand, in no uncertain terms, against oppression and injustice, in particular against African-Americans. And he names names with no hesitation.

Perhaps the most well-known and problematic controversy was over his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” referencing 9/11. The link above also gives context to the controversy itself in which the state of New Jersey, which had selected Baraka as its Poet Laureate, literally dissolved the post of Poet Laureate under the patently false bit of rhetoric “arts should focus on the art, not the individual (artist)” — as if this was a sudden bolt of intellectual lightning. The purpose of eliminating the position of Poet Laureate was to remove Mr. Baraka because some were offended by his poem. “Some” meaning the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which called the poem “antisemitic” for its implication that Israel was somehow complicit in 9/11. Whether or not one agrees with this opinion, Baraka’s argument on behalf of his poem and his refusal to retract it, was simply that Israel is not the same as Judaism or Jews, but a nation. This implies that the nation could make mistakes, even egregious ones.

Of course, what is at stake is not a “mistake” but complicity in a crime which has become pivotal as the raison d’être of the global war on terror, something Israel would likely find useful to its security, but also something Israel would not to be associated with in this way. That 9/11 was the crime that triggered invasions of other countries, military actions against “terrorism” and the hyping and flame-fanning of war-mongers keen to incite anti-Muslim sentiment, makes such an accusation quite consequential. Nevertheless, it is technically an opinion and not a legal accusation, certainly not a denigration of the Jewish people any more than accusations, within the same poem, against the CIA accusing it also of complicity, is somehow a slander against the American people. State actions are always separate from their people. (Not always an easy fact to maintain in a politicized world.)

Importantly, the poem expressed an opinion, one covered in the first amendment to the Bill of Rights. The very same poem also ranted against the Holocaust and against discrimination against Jews among others including African-Americans. Many Jews within the nation of Israel have voiced opinions highly unfavorable of Israeli government policies and actions with impunity. That the ADL would strongarm the State of New Jersey, which was bound by contract to keep Baraka as its Poet Laureate at its contracted salary, to go around their legal obligations by removing the post entirely, indicates there are forces more influential, certainly in this case, than democracy itself or the constitution. That those “forces” or that group would be able to railroad their demands through is also testament to how little people understand what freedom of speech or expression means. That political voices or voices of dissent would be thus deliberately suppressed while pornography or demonstrations by the KKK be allowed under the first amendment speaks volumes. Pornography only offends families of children or women (and some men) who find it misogynist — certainly not so different from antisemitism — but these people have no clout. And without clout, apparently, the Bill of Rights is just another contract to work around and circumvent. Was anyone offended at this unfair treatment or at the defamation of a man merely expressing his opinion. He was outspoken, and not all his opinions are ones I would necessarily agree with. But I would fight to the death for his right to say them.

Meanwhile, here is an older poem about racism, a less controversial subject these days, thankfully. Unless, of course, one accuses the “wrong” person…

Dope

BY Amiri Baraka

uuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuu
uuuuuuuuuu uuu ray light morning fire lynch yet
uuuuuuu, yester-pain in dreams
comes again. race-pain, people our people
our people
everywhere . . . yeh . . . uuuuu, yeh
uuuuu. yeh
our people
yes people
every people
most people
uuuuuu, yeh uuuuu, most people
in pain
yester-pain, and pain today
(Screams) ooowow! ooowow! It must be
the devil
(jumps up like a claw stuck him) oooo
wow! oooowow! (screams)

It must be the devil
It must be the devil
it must be the devil
(shakes like evangelical sanctify
shakes tambourine like evangelical sanctify
in heat)

ooowow! ooowow! yeh, devil, yeh, devil
ooowow!

Must be the devil must be the devil
(waves plate like collection) mus is mus is
mus is
mus is be the devil, cain be rockefeller
(eyes roll
up batting, and jumping all the way around
to face the
other direction) caint be him, no lawd
aint be dupont, no lawd, cain be, no lawd,
no way
noway, naw saw, no way jose — cain be
them rich folks
theys good to us theys good to us theys
good to us theys
good to us theys good to us, i know, the
massa tolt me
so, i seed it on channel 7, i seed it on
channel 9 i seed
it on channel 4 and 2 and 5. Rich folks
good to us
poor folks aint shit, hallelujah, hallelujah,
ooowow! oowow!
must be the devil, going to heaven after i
die, after we die
everything going to be different, after we die
we aint gon be
hungry, ain gon be pain, ain gon be sufferin
wont go thru this
again, after we die, after we die owooo!
owowoooo!
after we die, its all gonna be good, have all
the money we
need after we die, have all the food we
need after we die
have a nice house like the rich folks, after
we die, after we die, after we
die, we can live like rev ike, after we die,
hallelujah, hallelujah, must be
the devil, it ain capitalism, it aint capitalism,
it aint capitalism,
naw it aint that, jimmy carter wdnt lie,
“lifes unfair” but it aint capitalism
must be the devil, owow! it ain the police,
jimmy carter wdnt lie, you
know rosalynn wdnt not lillian, his
drunken racist brother aint no reflection
on jimmy, must be the devil got in im, i tell
you, the devil killed malcolm
and dr king too, even killed both kennedies,
and pablo neruda and overthrew
allende’s govt. killed lumumba, and is
negotiating with step and fetchit,
sleep n eat and birmingham, over there in
“Rhodesia”, goin’ under the name
ian smith, must be the devil, caint be vortser,
caint be apartheid, caint
be imperialism, jimmy carter wdnt lie, didnt
you hear him say in his state
of the union message, i swear on rosalynn’s
face-lifted catatonia, i wdnt lie
nixon lied, haldeman lied, dean lied, hoover
lied hoover sucked (dicks) too
but jimmy dont, jimmy wdnt jimmy aint lying,
must be the devil, put yr
money on the plate, must be the devil, in
heaven we’all all be straight
cain be rockefeller, he gave amos pootbootie a
scholarship to Behavior
Modification Univ, and Genevieve Almoswhite
works for his foundation
Must be niggers! Cain be Mellon, he gave
Winky Suckass, a fellowship in
his bank put him in charge of closing out
mortgages in the lowlife
Pittsburgh Hill nigger section, caint be him.
(Goes on babbling, and wailing, jerking
in pathocrazy grin stupor)
Yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yes-
suh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh, yessuh,
put yr money in the plate, dont be late, dont
have to wait, you gonna be in
heaven after you die, you gon get all you need
once you gone, yessuh, i heard
it on the jeffersons, i heard it on the rookies,
I swallowed it
whole on roots: wasn’t it nice slavery was so
cool and
all you had to do was wear derbies and vests
and train chickens and buy your
way free if you had a mind to, must be the
devil, wasnt no white folks,
lazy niggers chained theyselves and threw
they own black asses in the bottom
of the boats, [(well now that you mention it King
Assblackuwasi helped throw yr ass in
the bottom of the boat, yo mamma, wife, and
you never seed em no more)] must
a been the devil, gimme your money put your
money on this plate, heaven be here soon,
just got to die, just got to stop living, close yr
eyes stop
breathin and bammm-O heaven be here, you
have all a what you need, Bam-O
all a sudden, heaven be here, you have all you
need, that assembly line
you work on will dissolve in thin air owowoo!
owowoo! Just gotta die
just gotta die, this ol world aint nuthin, must be
the devil got you
thinkin so, it cain be rockefeller, it cain be mor-
gan, it caint be capitalism
it caint be national oppression owow! No Way!
Now go back to work and cool
it, go back to work and lay back, just a little
while longer till you pass
its all gonna be alright once you gone. gimme
that last bitta silver you got
stashed there sister, gimme that dust now broth-
er man, itll be ok on the
other side, yo soul be clean be washed pure
white. yes. yes. yes. owow.
now go back to work, go to sleep, yes, go to
sleep, go back to work, yes
owow. owow. uuuuuuuuuu, uuuuuuuuuuu,
uuuuuuuuuuu. yes, uuuuuuu. yes.
uuuuuuuuuu.
a men.

Source: The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (Basic Books, 2009)

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Rita Dove: Expressing the Inexpressible

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Rita Dove, long an icon in the poetry world, creates memorable poems that often tie to history: personal or in the public domain. Her poetry has often spoken to me directly, uncovering some undiscovered thing that I wouldn’t have thought of in a million years. These two poems, one personal and the other public-historical (a note follows with context, and it is a powerful portrayal of human oppression and cruelty), are each unforgettable in different ways.

“I have been a stranger in a strange land”

By Rita Dove

Life’s spell is so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.
Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t bliss. What was bliss
but the ordinary life? She’d spend hours
in patter, moving through whole days
touching, sniffing, tasting . . . exquisite
housekeeping in a charmed world.
And yet there was always

more of the same, all that happiness,
the aimless Being There.
So she wandered for a while, bush to arbor,
lingered to look through a pond’s restive mirror.
He was off cataloging the universe, probably,
pretending he could organize
what was clearly someone else’s chaos.

That’s when she found the tree,
the dark, crabbed branches
bearing up such speechless bounty,
she knew without being told
this was forbidden. It wasn’t
a question of ownership—
who could lay claim to
such maddening perfection?

And there was no voice in her head,
no whispered intelligence lurking
in the leaves—just an ache that grew
until she knew she’d already lost everything
except desire, the red heft of it
warming her outstretched palm.

Parsley

By Rita Dove

1. The Cane Fields

There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.
Out of the swamp the cane appears

to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General
searches for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,

we lie down screaming as rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R—
out of the swamp, the cane appears

and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.

El General has found his word: perejil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining
out of the swamp. The cane appears

in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.
And we lie down. For every drop of blood
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.

2. The Palace

The word the general’s chosen is parsley.
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
and he planted her walking cane at the grave
and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming
four-star blossoms. The general

pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders
Who can I kill today. And for a moment
the little knot of screams
is still. The parrot, who has traveled

all the way from Australia in an ivory
cage, is, coy as a widow, practising
spring. Ever since the morning
his mother collapsed in the kitchen
while baking skull-shaped candies
for the Day of the Dead, the general
has hated sweets. He orders pastries
brought up for the bird; they arrive

dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;
he sees his boots the first day in battle
splashed with mud and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—
how stupid he looked!— at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing
the soldier said, and died. Now

the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
He sees his mother’s smile, the teeth
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears
the Haitians sing without R’s
as they swing the great machetes:
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,

mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
could roll an R like a queen. Even
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room
the bright feathers arch in a parody
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone

calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death.
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs
men of his village wore in their capes
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed

for a single, beautiful word.

NOTES: On October 2, 1937, Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961), dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered 20,000 blacks killed because they could not pronounce the letter “r” in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley.

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Marilyn Nelson: Poetry that Moves

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From the past into the present…for this blog post, but also for the phenomenal poet Marilyn Nelson, whose poems skillfully commemorate the past while fully engaged in the present. The poem below, like so much of her work, brought me to tears.

Mama’s Promise

BY Marilyn Nelson

I have no answer to the blank inequity
of a four-year-old dying of cancer.
I saw her on t.v. and wept
with my mouth full of meatloaf.

I constantly flash on disasters now;
red lights shout Warning. Danger.
everywhere I look.
I buckle him in, but what if a car
with a grille like a sharkbite
roared up out of the road?
I feed him square meals
but what if the fist of his heart
should simply fall open?
I carried him safely
as long as I could,
but now he’s a runaway
on the dangerous highway.
Warning. Danger.
I’ve started to pray.

But the dangerous highway
curves through blue evenings
when I hold his yielding hand
and snip his miniscule nails
with my vicious-looking scissors.
I carry him around
like an egg in a spoon,
and I remember a porcelain fawn,
a best friend’s trust,
my broken faith in myself.
It’s not my grace that keeps me erect
as the sidewalk clatters downhill
under my rollerskate wheels.

Sometimes I lie awake
troubled by this thought:
It’s not so simple to give a child birth;
you also have to give it death,
the jealous fairy’s christening gift.

I’ve always pictured my own death
as a closed door,
a black room,
a breathless leap from the mountain top
with time to throw out my arms, lift my head,
and see, in the instant my heart stops,
a whole galaxy of blue.
I imagined I’d forget,
in the cessation of feeling,
while the guilt of my lifetime floated away
like a nylon nightgown,
and that I’d fall into clean, fresh forgiveness.

Ah, but the death I’ve given away
is more mine than the one I’ve kept:
from my hand the poisoned apple,
from my bow the mistletoe dart.

Then I think of Mama,
her bountiful breasts.
When I was a child, I really swear,
Mama’s kisses could heal.
I remember her promise,
and whisper it over my sweet son’s sleep:

When you float to the bottom, child,
like a mote down a sunbeam,
you’ll see me from a trillion miles away:
my eyes looking up to you,
my arms outstretched for you like night.

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Langston Hughes: World-Opener

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What would a list of African-American poets be without Langston Hughes? Prolific, entirely original, yet intentionally accessible, Hughes is a mountain: one of the most iconic American poets, certainly one of the most well-known and well-received African-American poets, with an impressive lifetime career not only as a poet, but also a novelist, short story writer, playwright, song lyricist, radio writer, translator, author of children’s books, lecturer, world traveler, and more. In the words of Donald B. Gibson,

During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read. He has been, unlike most nonblack poets other than Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg, a poet of the people. . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.

One need only read the poem below to see how Hughes brought his original voice, for and about “ordinary” people, and in particular people of color, in the scope and breadth of Walt Whitman, and also in the same tradition in terms of using poetry to in a sense celebrate humanness and the universality and higher aims of human life, taking into account as many walks of life as possible. This in a time when doing this wasn’t cool. African Americans involved in literature and the arts felt he focused to his detriment on the suffering and oppression and the actual life of Harlem and the ghettos. The white literary establishment was ambivalent but some felt he was too “simple” or down to earth. In retrospect, all these views fell by the wayside. The mountain stands higher, and longer.

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

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New Poem in Antiphon 17!

The lovely online poetry magazine Antiphon (based in the UK) has just gone live with one of my poems, “How Could I” among so many fine poems. It is an honor and indeed thrilling to be in it. The issue is beautifully presented as a PDF, easy to download for future reference. Please check it out!

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Kwame Dawes: Poetry You Will Never Forget

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Kwame Dawes, poet and mountain (what else can I say?), has written poetry that will follow you everywhere. You’ll be in the middle of something totally unrelated and this tornado child will be there, you will wish you were him at that moment. Maybe they have become “Dawes Classics” but I couldn’t decide between the two poems below, each powerful, a force of truth and what you needed to hear but didn’t know.

Tornado Child

By Kwame Dawes

For Rosalie Richardson

I am a tornado child.
I come like a swirl of black and darken up your day;
I whip it all into my womb, lift you and your things,
carry you to where you’ve never been, and maybe,
if I feel good, I might bring you back, all warm and scared,
heart humming wild like a bird after early sudden flight.

I am a tornado child.
I tremble at the elements. When thunder rolls my womb
trembles, remembering the tweak of contractions
that tightened to a wail when my mother pushed me out
into the black of a tornado night.

I am a tornado child,
you can tell us from far, by the crazy of our hair;
couldn’t tame it if we tried. Even now I tie a bandanna
to silence the din of anarchy in these coir-thick plaits.

I am a tornado child
born in the whirl of clouds; the center crumbled,
then I came. My lovers know the blast of my chaotic giving;
they tremble at the whip of my supple thighs;
you cross me at your peril, I swallow light
when the warm of anger lashes me into a spin,
the pine trees bend to me swept in my gyrations.

I am a tornado child.
When the spirit takes my head, I hurtle into the vacuum
of white sheets billowing and paint a swirl of color,
streaked with my many songs.

“Tornado Child” by Kwame Dawes, from Midland (Ohio University Press). Copyright © 2001 by Kwame Dawes.

If You Know Her

By Kwame Dawes

If you know your woman, know her rhythms,
know her ways; if you paying attention
to her all these years, you will know
how she comes and goes, how she slips
away even though she is standing in
the same place, you will know that her
world is drifting softly from you, and she
may not mean it, because all it is
is she is scared to be everything, scared
to be finding herself in you every time,
scared that one day she will ask herself,
all forty-plenty years of her, where
she’s been; if you know your woman,
you will know that mostly she will
come back, but sometimes, when she
drifts like this, something can make her
slip; and then coming back is hard.
If you know your woman, you can
tell by the way she puts on heels,
and she does not sashay for you
because it is not about you—how
she will buy some leather boots
and not say a word about it,
and you only see it when she walks
in one night, and she says she’s had
them forever; you will see the way
she loses the weight and pretend
its nothing, but when she isn’t seeing you
looking, you can see how she faces the mirror
lifts her chest to catch a profile,
and how she casually looks at her
ass for signs of life. If you know
your woman, when you are gone, she
will find things to do, like walk
alone, go see a movie, find a park,
collect her secrets and you won’t know,
because she is looking for herself.
And she won’t tell you that she wants
to hear what idle men say when she
walks by them; because what you say
is not enough. If you know your
woman, you know when she’s going
away and you will feel the big
hole of your love, and you can’t
tell why she’s listening and humming
to tunes you did not know she heard
before, and she will laugh softly
at nothing at all. If you know your
woman, you will see how she comes
and goes, and all you can do is wait
and pray she will come back to you,
because you know that your sins
are enough for her to leave and not return.

“If You Know Her” by Kwame Dawes,
appears in “Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems” (2013), Copper Canyon Press.

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Two Poems on Mezzo Cammin!

Mezzo Cammin, the premier venue for women formalist poets, has published two of my poems, “The Moment,” a villanelle, and “Perfume,” a longer piece in blank verse that takes you from my grandmother to the Pharoahs, stopping by Air Force one, all of it via perfume. The whole issue is spectacular! Please check it out.

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Filed under Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Poetry, Poetry in forms, Poets, Publications, Siham Karami, Siham Karami poems, Siham Karami poetry, women poets, Women's poetry