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Kwame Dawes


after Susan Stewart

That same story has many castings,
at heart, though, it is about
betrayal, the breaking of promises.
Hard to trust what you have read,
though often the word is sacred
as anything true in the world.

Another story, a man arrives
in Oxford, Mississippi on pilgrimage
to see Faulkner's walls covered
with the scribblings of his genius.

It is, though, a tour bus pilgrimage,
afterwards it will be Graceland to lay
a wreath for Elvis.  Crossing the cradle
of the War of Northern Aggression,

I ride with no knowledge of the next
battle field, and the dead murmur
through the cricket infested night.
We take supper at a soul food shack,

Before we arrive in a sweet
smelling autumnal night at Ole Miss,
my crotch funky with sweat,
my body nervous as an alien's.

For breakfast at the visitor's center,
the cafeteria is down the hall
of dead presidents, not a Negro
among them.  A grinning negress

greets me like a brother. I ask
for the thing my language has taught me,
grits, gritty, crispy, crunchy, fried,
I have imagined this as one imagines

the color of words even when we don't
know what they mean.  She gives me
porridge, bland porridge like a mess
of blanched semen with a pat of butter.

Faulkner will haunt us with his own
haunting--no one has forgiven
the blood of the confederacy,
and grits is the first lie I learn

in the South, and there will be
many more mornings when my tongue
will grow numb and heavy, speaking
the lies I learned to folks who stare

at me, dumbfounded by my gibberish.
There are dead ends where our maps
marked thoroughfares, there are no interpreters
to comfort me, there are lies in my heart,

things I must unlearn, things that betray
me again and again, before, mercifully
I am fed a new dialect heavy with blood,
that no one speaks where I am going.


Honest Work

The poet when he

wrote about our parents in the garden
         gave them love and rest
and mindfulness.  But first
         he gave them honest work
Linda Gregerson

Only after, in the evenings, would he stroll
leisurely through the garden, mindlessly,
knowing full well that eventually, the voice
would come first, casual, familiar as if
yesterday's conversation never ended,
as if today's arrival slipped past us: "I can
see why you would go with that name, but
are you sure it was not just too easy: like
the first thing to come to you?". Before
she came he used to chuckle at these
challenges treating them like pointless
banter, quickly forgotten, nothing lasting
beyond the night.  "Sure, it was easy,
but you know, everything still feels quite
new to me.  I don't even think we have
a cliche, yet.  One day we will call this
naming thing, old hat, but I don't even
have a hat, yet.  I should get one, you
think?" Which was quite funny, though
she didn't trust that kind of humor, and she
was right that someone had to keep
track of every name; what is the point
of repeating the things, behaving like
there was not a yesterday, and there won't
be a tomorrow, like this was art and not work,
which is where things started to get funky,
not so much that she wanted to know,
but that she knew and didn't see why
everybody was pretending not to know.
Some people could care less about
gaps in a ledger: fist sized oval shaped
green, yellow or red skinned, sometimes
purple, and bright yellow turning orange
inside--fleshy, sweet, juicy.  Name
mango, etc,  Then a gap, no category,
one notation: classified.  Which is fine
for a week, maybe a month, but when
you are working, organizing, remembering,
the blank is maddening.  An honest
worker must complete her task, this
is all, and the rest we know, though
it makes you think about how we sin
each day to finish that line, to scratch
off the final to do item: the hubris of a day's
tasks completed, what we do to make it all
whole again, so we can do tomorrow,
more than we did today, which is progress:
having something to say about yesterday.


On Silence

What frightens most are the wounds she wears,
so many dead lovers, so many insults, the public
evisceration, the stalkers, the real stalkers who throw
rotten eggs on her back door for months, the letters
of pure hatred by people who have taken the time
to read her words enough to hate her--so that her every
poem can only be holy, beautiful, all those secrets
revealed.  And more, she knows so much, quotes
Polish poets in Polish, and talks of months spent
in Salamanca or a village in Argentina to find Buddha
and where she reads ancient Egyptian poems, she is
so full of understanding, and her wounds, I was saying
are so deep, her beatification is inevitable.
How do we drink coffee together, what do we talk about?
The South African novelist now living in Adelaide,
answers strangers and even familiar acquaintances
in Afrikaans--he never smiles, one friend says
she heard him laugh once in ten years, and the sound
was so painful it broke out like a cough, a croak,
in his book, he said he feels like he lives
on the battlements of his city alarming the fatal
arrivals that happen each day.  He has fine tuned
the art of absolute distance, which is mostly myth,
but myth is all he needs to keep the curious away,
and so he looks brilliant, so damn inscrutably brilliant.
I promise to learn from him and do this in her company,
but she smiles fragilely and opens her eyes as if
in search of a compliment, or gratitude expressed,
so I thank her for giving me audience, and my words
tumble out, my laughter too easy, too much,
and after, late at night, my body stretched out
in my cubicle, I rehearse the sounds I made,
wincing in deep mortification for the thin layer
of presence I offered, and I think of how dead it seems
now that I have failed at silence again.