[Poetry] Three Poems, By John Keene | Harper's Magazine

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[Poetry]

Three Poems

Adjust

vesey on the eve

Maybe he should have split every tongue
among his fellow Israelites whether they swore
on their souls or not. Or gone it alone,

based on the signs he read in the cowries
and cob wheels, the gris-gris of his motherwit.

But that wouldn’t have been practical.
How many turncoats’ throats can one man slit,
how many ships commandeer, homesteads level

to ash by sunup? In his bones he knows
a fool or traitor one will step forward to sow

his plan like feed among the buckras,
and his name from that moment will be blacker
than blood. Some know no other way.

On the other side of the river of souls the scale
will tip in his favor. Men sleep as sure in their skins

in heaven as liberated ghosts in Pétion’s nation.
Faith alone leaves only a small window
to leap through, with his map, kerosene,

his dagger, his Bible, the axe. Though his heart
is flapping like a mainsail in a hurricane,

from South Santee to the Euhaws the silent
cry sounds: “Peter, Gullah Jack, gather
my children! Our hour of battle is on.”

 

blackness

after Miguel James

When I begin a poem I often do so
because I love black people.
When I choose not to write
a poem I still love black people.
If I write I love black people
it’s because I love black people.
If I don’t write I love black people
I still love black people. Every metaphor,
every simile is rooted in the fact
I love black people. Even if I forgo
figurative language altogether I still
love black people. Whenever I start
an essay or a short story or novel
I can feel all the way to the very bottom
of my soul that I love black people.
Those times when I stare
at the blank white screen or page
I may despair that I cannot show
or testify how much I love black
people and want other black people
and all people to love black people. But
it is enough to know deep in my soul
and heart how much I love black people
and to say and urge others to say
publicly that they love black
people which is to say I have learned
to love myself and to love black people
and to recognize that despite all that
we face in the world from the moment
of our birth to the day we die
that even the black period that will end
this poem is a sign and seal
to me and anyone who cares
that I love black people.

 

portrait of the father as a young gi

Orpheus behind the playboy’s gaze, turning mellow
youth toward every lens while inwardly roiling,
a cauldron of anger. What brother did not wear a mask
in those days? In Korea the “battle” was over, Vietnam
still undeclared, at home, the endless war. . . . Parisian arcades
soon to beckon, wing-roll slowly descending into defeated
Deutschland, the “Dutch girl’s” calming touch. Before that, camp,
K.P., the shouldered rifle that bows your spine, first flight
in a helicopter, your squadron of brother warriors
and white folks from far beyond the Mississippi.
Prone, in the barracks’ silent mine he hears streetcars
clanking toward their slow demise, like swing,
his daddy tuning organ pipes while riffing
on capacitors, his mama cooling rye in crystal,
freedom’s unsteady stagger down Market Street.
Soon he’ll father: never forgiven. Soon forgotten
he’ll fall in love again. Soon he’ll ride again the roads
he passed a thousand times without a thought,
recross the rivers left to bridge, deep, unbidden
as tunes that rise behind the ears becoming melodies
a man must sing aloud. Now one, unceasingly, breaking
the dark like a crack in the bone: “Don’t look back.”

 is the author, most recently, of Punks: New and Selected Poems, which will be published in December by The Song Cave.



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