What’s that story about the blackbird
visiting a man, or, more accurately,
his depression? Making him recognize it,
I mean. It was often like that
with birds, reminding you of your flightlessness.
It was like that, then more so, then only that.
I’m doing as much as I can these days
despite thinking about what ails me—
going on walks, slipping into bathroom stalls
with strange men who become not-so-strange
when they pull down their pants—without wanting more
from absence, if a thing can even be considered absent
not having been there to begin with.
If not a blackbird, something that was blackened
by blackness, with an animal understanding,
was in his room. Above. It had wings. No, it didn’t.
My father taught me feet are something to care for, cradle.
He never talks about anything else. I remind people
my Dad’s age too much of hot, sticky, high green foliage
flapping in their faces, or steam rising up from
the rice paddies the platoons waded through
all morning, crossing in the open, barrels loaded, sighted,
ready for a fight. Yellow. Roses. That is what they sent home
to their wives to dry in glass vases. My face is a big yellow moon
rising in their nightmares, my face a howling monkey,
a ripe watermelon rind, grinning back at them.
Or perhaps it’s my hair that troubles them: black braid
bouncing up and down with the rocking, with the movements
of the swing. Whose hand can make its own shape on my skin?
My skin will turn to crisp brown under any sun. My eyes
will holster any loaded rifle. My father is an ant moving
through the tall grass, boots filling with mud and muck. He
never talks about anything else. He’s the slap of the wind
hitting my face. His yellow balloon silence is what fills
the room, but I’m the hot air taking up the space
in-between his ribcage. Did he ever pull any trigger?
Sear metal into someone else’s flesh? Will someone ever
ask what freedom means to me? I know how to sip
strong tea, place the cup back on the saucer, blood
dripping down its sides pooling onto the painted saucer.
There is a man you will learn
to call uncle. He will teach you
the answer to many questions
is land bridge. There will be truth
in what he says. He will call you
something other than your name
no matter what your name is.
No matter what your name is
you might not like it. It is likely
you will have lots of hair,
likely in places you would not
expect. I have always tried
to play up my love
for bears so even body fat seems
tribute to mothers who kill
to protect their young. I hope
I would do the same. Let us
see what happens. Whatever happens,
most of us feel we were born
too late but really there are
no good old days. Some days
there will be only swallowed silence
and sobbing: the world is
not always kind and rarely makes sense
so when the sun goes down
we will sing our songs and talk
about morning. Mountain ranges
rise from valleys and forests
make them look green, but mountains are
mostly gray underneath, stone
we will sometimes climb simply
to stand on top of. Sometimes
at sunset it looks like mountain
and cloud are the same. When it does
please sit with me and watch.
Lakes are best for swimming
and rivers for fishing but oceans
wash away feelings you cannot find
names for. No matter what,
drying your feet of cold water
will make them feel better
than you can imagine,
especially after a day spent
walking uneven ground. Reaching
the end of days, it is common
to ask, “Why are we here? Where
are we going? How do we get there?”
There are lots of answers.
You will have to find most of them
yourself. It will involve lots
of walking on uneven ground.
It might involve trying
to walk across water. You could do
worse than wet feet. There will be
sobbing and silence, unkindness,
love, and laughter. You could do
lots worse. You could do lots. Do lots.
I used to call boys
after my parents
my lethal friend Meredith
to phone Patrick or Michael
and ask what they were wearing.
One boy, Joey,
for me, for hours,
while I lay with the phone tucked
like a pillow
against my red-hot ear.
I called my mother from college
nightly to try and detect
how drunk she might be,
whether or not she loved me
more from longing.
One blizzard, she let me
watch When a Stranger Calls, the sick
moment when the police at last
call Carol Kane back,
cry the call is coming
from inside the house.
Ted Kennedy called
Mary Jo Kopechne
baby and sugar lips, likely
the same names he used
on his wife because
bad love is always
lazy. That night,
the police stayed
uncalled. I’ve called
twice: once when I saw
a drunk I thought was dead
on 14th Street, once from the floor
of a seaside B&B
after you’d held your boot
so hard against my throat the tread
left behind its diamonds. The cops
could’ve dusted my neck
like dirt. When you
called me from
the seaside jail, you said baby
they’re recording us
which I much later understood
as a plea
not to incriminate you further.
I can’t remember
what I did say
instead, I can’t remember
how I responded
when either dispatcher
asked flatly what
is your emergency. On TV,
in these recordings,
the caller is always
upset. When Watson
answered the first phone call,
Bell didn’t celebrate,
instead he beckoned
his friend, said come here I need you.
~after Jamaal May
My father’s voice after the cancer
has spread. A flip phone. A flag.
George Bush’s hands, as he pauses
his vacation briefly for thoughts and prayers.
My body next to the potted plant
after my father throws the wooden chair.
A cheaply made chair. A small stack
of clothes. A birthday card.
Milvirtha Hendricks under the American
flag 5 days after Hurricane Katrina.
Her face from the crease
made in her
obituary photo as we use
the newspaper to eat crawfish.
The wrinkles in her forehead.
through a broken levee.
My uncle’s hands
retaping the attic windows
after the flood water rises.
My cousins sleeping
in the attic because
no neighbor has a rescue boat.
Black people in distress.
They lay prostrate and call it
prayer. The blankets on my cousins’
shoulders days later, when rescued.
The National Guard’s smile as he carries
the neighbor’s dog from the flooded
living room. The dog’s body around
an upside down flag.
ON THE ONE HAND, IN THE OTHER
Sometimes when you are born from an abundance of love
you, yourself, do not know the proper ways in which to love.
Your house guests are always at odds with your house ghosts.
The stairwell constantly littered with tin cans and lynched cats.
Obvious death threats, but from the guests or the ghosts
you have yet to determine. Soon the people in your life
will become too real to write about. Making poetry a suitable
space only for your strangers. The woman at the cemetery
missed by seconds, whose lipstick kisses are still fresh
on the marble stone next to your grandfather’s. The girl
met in group therapy whose dealer, named Temple, blesses every
batch of shrooms he sells. You’ve folded these phantoms into
talismans, time and time again. Still, each year presents itself
like a small tight coin. A fountain of fish you’ve mistaken for silver.
Here is the beautiful lie: there is nothing ugly about surviving.
This life will ask you more than once to make the choice
between starfish or worm. One animal growing
back what was lost, the other learning to live without.
Seconds before the storm, and all
that’s left outside are the horses
tied to their posts. When the floods
recede will we line up the dead
in neat rows, the way we did
in Ypres? The last children
are leaving their homes now.
Soon only loose fur, aglets without
laces, shores of nothing more
than the dismantled spines
of jellyfish. Riddance swelling
among the barren fruit flies, their
kingdom of peels and pits.
The girls will swat, no use. Pierce
their tongues instead. Their fathers
well toward retiring now, if only
those jack asses in office. It is
now legal to hunt boar by hot air
balloon so it should reason we too
were once abused animals
scratching at doors while
water rose over us. Haven’t
we all hid from the rainbow
giant in the sky who wants us
dead by rifle. Who’s to say
any one of us hasn’t already died,
isn’t right now covered
by white linens, puddles of Stallions
with the whole weight of ourselves
piled atop our own limbs, leaving
cracks in the metal soles. It is natural
for disasters to beget more disaster.
If you haven’t already, set fire
to something while it’s raining.
The juxtaposition will feel
like an orgasm followed by a small
god, as you watch the flames meet
each drop. Not sure, when you inhale
if you are breathing in smoke or steam.
True, it’s always difficult to have a body. But think of all
the nice things we can wear. That yeast can develop
in the mouth, is no reason to stop inching ourselves
away from death. Toward fancy tailored suits. Mints
on the pillow. No need to be anything but, the comedian
at the fashion show, if you can’t say anything nice, say
“I’m not convinced you exist. But there’s a lovely
fragrance in the air.” So what you can’t give blood
because of mad cow, you don’t even have it. Just exposed
once. The mad came close, you took a tennis racket
to its face. Country-club-finest. How about a real world
example of pain that doesn’t belong to you? How about
the depth of a lake unmoved by the presence of stones? Ample
evidence suggests that nothing sans dark can do
good. Gandhi would sleep naked side by side his niece.
A test of temptation. He never was, tempted.
You wonder about the girl. Was she able to sleep any
of those nights? All your bruises happen without you noticing.
If your spouse kills you, do the caretakers know better
than to bury you in your wedding ring? This doesn’t apply
to your bruises specifically, but you feel it should still be asked.
Back in the body, they are cleaning the church bells.
How else to sound the angels, how else to prepare fear
for a feast? Chiffon on every guest, iced over every cake.
More than once, your throat has become a funhouse
tunnel where the ground stays still but the walls spin
and spin. This too will pass. You wonder about the girl.
Never mind the girl. She doesn’t belong to you.
I’ve crawled in the deep
grooves of man’s thumbprint –
My crescent roll smile peaking
up over their canyon begging
to be devoured. Be nice
Mama said, be welcoming –
His hand up my skirt,
he wore me
like a secret trophy
behind the glass case
of his pupils. I scrape
my remains into a velvet abyss
of another plane to exist,
to hide from how he grabbed me
too, how men imprint on all of us
invisible ink –
A finger here, a thumb between
our lips, whole hands
over our whole face. Pull out
the black light and watch
our bodies glow. We are the sea
of fireflies you ignore by day
but when we float in the heavy night air
you grab your mason jar, scoop up our light,
close the lid, and screw it on tight.
ON BEING EMPTY
I am a cicada husk clinging
crisp & dry & stuck
in his bed,
his heaving chest
on my back –
A silhouette of a body
with meat inside. My pumping
pulse must find a new skin to reside
in. Between finger and thumb
I am weightless. I am the lack
of friction found in still legs,
void of desire I crumble
in his palm, my chirp in the night
chorus is over,
the song of my limbs
a cadence for the coming light –
I am the moment you miss
when you blink. I am silent.
I watch him escape.
No can’t you hear
I can hear your brothers in the hall
tennis shoes on linoleum
your tongue a pillow
Suffocating me now
No I was waiting the water
stain on your ceiling is a
mushroom cloud I dive in to
and you’re out of me and pulling my straps
up after you tell me
I can go now
bare feet on linoleum
Laughter is close, even if it’s
just the schadenfreude
of middle-school girls,
their juicy, eye-rolling, malicious
down the street (like a tiny pink slug
in a pigeon’s beak), hotting up
the air—why pretend
you can’t hear? Laughter,
the only eternity
that’s real. Laughter
and its toothy
lift off, even
when toxic. “Save me”
is what’s written
on the faces of so many
“save me” & “fuck you.”
So the ancient Tibetan masters
teach, focused as they are
both by the attar of sage burning
and the wailing of toddlers
by a septic tank—
a thousand years dead,
but still dreaming
they’re fast asleep
in their boyhood beds.
~for Will Brown
because you were beautiful and black with lips like pin cushions
and just as soft because you were made to be pierced
to be torn apart to be a mooring for desire and how else
could I touch you could I unwrap your figure pull the meat
from parchment how else could I devour
christ how could I help but love and want you
want you begging at my feet want you bound splayed for pleasure
who wouldn’t want to pleasure you and if not pleasure
then provoke and if not provoke then to watch you writhe
watch you dance at the stake my wanton messiah my sweet
and tender love how could I look on the curve of your neck
the muscles’ ripple the veins’ throb beneath the skin
without itching for the noose and because I wanted
to be near you and the world demanded I give in return
and because I couldn’t give you joy and it’d hurt too much to give you peace
and because all I had for you was a wound a love mark dark
as the valleys of the moon and because who wouldn’t give anything
to be near you to watch the sweat gather and glisten like diamonds
to study the pink of your gums as you cry out for mercy
to watch you swell and open to bathe in the heat radiating from your bones
like the halo of a long suffering saint how could I not breathe
you in your flesh fast becoming incense becoming a thick holy smoke
how could I not pass across your form almost daring
to lean down to kiss
The sky is at the feeder again.
I mean the indigo bunting
with no bearings for home.
A man pulls into the driveway
after work—crunching stones,
hallooing up the stairs—
wanting to know about my day.
All the days are wranglers,
I say. I am not able to cite
my sources, but I make a list.
A woman at lunch said we do not
plan to live two hundred years,
and so I think to tell him
—well, I do not plan to live
two hundred years! In my hands,
pillowcases I bought, embroidery
floss. Everywhere I go I think
about what is impossible.
Can homing pigeons carry
their nth letter and still get lost?
My job is to build a home,
I tell this man I have already built
a home with. My job is to do
something with my hands.
In a handful of seasons,
water and cold dirt
TWO POEMS by Kerrin McCadden
LAUGHTER IS CLOSE by David Rivard
THREE POEMS by Alyssa Beckitt
THREE POEMS by Jessica Hincapie
THINGS THAT FOLD by Karisma Price
SUMMONS by Jess Smith
TO MY CHILD BEFORE SHE ARRIVES by Brian Simoneau
LAMENT FOR SOME OTHER SAIGON by Sarah Audsley
AS THE FOG ROLLS IN, NIGHT FINDS ITS FOOTING by Luther Hughes
Contributing Editor Vievee Francis talks with the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“IN FOREST PRIMEVAL, winner of the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Vievee Francis summons a wilderness — equal parts the wilderness of America and the wilderness of the interior — that takes us off center. I know and love that particular North Carolina wild that Vievee has described, having lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains myself for a stint, too. Vievee and I have both since left those mountains, and during our conversation, which took place during her weeklong residency at Claremont Graduate University, we laughed about living in a place where there might be snakes on the porch or stinkbugs nestled in the curtains. That is, a place where that wild thing in the world and in the self feels nakedly present and abundant; one has to face it. And it is so, in this book: a segue from Vievee’s vivid persona poems, those extraordinary masks, into an articulation of her own personhood — a speaking of the black female body, this marvelous, terrified, joyful assertion of her name in a broken country that would otherwise un-speak it.”
Read at LARB.