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you certainly have the right to your thoughts in this minefield


All that’s dammed-up
in your head, hammered
by the whitewater current
of your knowing better—

the daily small breach,
no matter how subtle evolved
longsuffering enlightened
you believe you are, I’ve

heard it before. I live here,
a survivor thus far
of the American War
waged in train cars

as in grocery stores
bank lobbies elevators
airplane galleys boutiques
and the velvet seats

of theaters. In my home
occasionally, or yours,
you let go your guard.
You dig into your right

to phrases, words
white sharp blades
that jab and nick
and then—so neat—

retract, taken back.

In my grandfather’s day
you boys
wouldn’t have been
allowed across that bridge.

You’ve answered
too long your own questions
about the long line
of men women dark children

your people’s people’s people
thought they knew. The only
river that has ever mattered
rages on today. Its lone bridge

sways beneath the age-old weight.
Is it too late for us, for you?




“And, on a simpler level, I want you to look up at these things that are happening to Black people, not down—the way you would stare at the sun.”

—Arthur Jafa

It was a stirring and a rising.
Like vapor. A gathering up
and a lifting off. And then
it was a swarm. All the many
coalescing as a form unified
in its going. Where? Like I said
up and off. A rapture.
Sometimes the light reversed
course, reaching into me.
A bright resonance, a flood
spilling down. But soon
it whorled, spun around, lifting
over the trees, over the scraped
stone tops of mountains
to disappear through a ring of sky.
I saw the shape of a woman
in a wide cotton dress lying
broken, or sleeping, or spent.
Lifted skyward into the distance
and disappearing. Dangling
a foot in the black wake
of history.


the wave after wave is one wave never tiring


Light atop the water
The form in the water
The afterimage of water

Standing falling risen
Over and again
Freedom is labor

To labor at oneself
To keep what is earned
To disappear reemerge

Plunging and carried
Lightness and burden
The smallest waves shingle in

Are tugged back to surge
To rise to be swallowed
And remain

They are the wet in the sand
Spreading in and down
Dark center of the old stain

The wave after wave is one wave never tiring

Freedom is fearsome

A nut drops onto fallen leaves
And my heart leaps
What approaches through

This ringing in the trees
And what warning does it carry
From the sea?

 was the poet laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. She is the co-translator, with Changtai Bi, of My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems, by Yi Lei, which will be published this month by Graywolf Press.

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February 2021

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