poem index

Cave Canem @ The Academy

Cave Canem fellows, faculty, guest poets and instructors.
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Muse, a Lady Cautioning
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

for Billie Holiday

There's fairness in changing blood for septet's
guardian rhythm, the horn blossoming
into cadenza. No good pimp's scowl, his
baby's voice ruined sweet for the duration.

Yes, these predictable fifths. O, the blues
is all about slinging those low tales out
the back door (sing: child pried open on that
stained floor). O, Billie hollers way down dirt

roads (sing: woman on the verge of needled
logic). She's aware--yeah, I'm going to
kiss some man's sugared fist tonight. O, this
tableau's muse, a Lady cautioning me: 

Just tough this thing out, girl. Sweat through the jones.
Don't ask for nothing.  Spit your last damned note.
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Transit of Venus
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
The actors mill about the party saying rhubarb
because other words do not sound like conversation.
In the kitchen, always, one who's just discovered
beauty, his mouth full of whiskey and strawberries.
He practices the texture of her hair with his tongue;
in her, five billion electrons pop their atoms. Rhubarb
in electromagnetic loops, rhubarb, rhubarb, the din increases.
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Duende
Tracy K. Smith, 1972
                1.

The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir
Of furious music heavy in the throat.  
They drag it out and with nails in their feet
Coax the night into being.  Brief believing.  
A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.
And in this night that is not night,
Each word is a wish, each phrase
A shape their bodies ache to fill—

             I’m going to braid my hair
         Braid many colors into my hair
             I’ll put a long braid in my hair
         And write your name there

They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing.


		2.

And not just them.  Not just
The ramshackle family, the tios,
Primitos, not just the bailaor
Whose heels have notched 
And hammered time
So the hours flow in place
Like a tin river, marking
Only what once was.
Not just the voices scraping
Against the river, nor the hands
nudging them farther, fingers
like blind birds, palms empty,
echoing.  Not just the women
with sober faces and flowers
in their hair, the ones who dance
as though they're burying
memory—one last time—
beneath them.
	  And I hate to do it here.
To set myself heavily beside them.
Not now that they’ve proven
The body a myth, parable
For what not even language 
Moves quickly enough to name.
If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know 
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet.


                3.

There is always a road,
The sea, dark hair, dolor.

Always a question
Bigger than itself—

	They say you’re leaving Monday
	Why can’t you leave on Tuesday?
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Letter to Brooks [Spring Garden]
Major Jackson, 1968
          1.

When you have forgotten (to bring into 
   Play that fragrant morsel of rhetoric, 
Crisp as autumnal air), when you 
   Have forgotten, say, sun-lit corners, brick 
   Full of skyline, rowhomes, smokestacks, 
Billboards, littered rooftops & wondered 
What bread wrappers reflect of our hunger, 

          2. 

When you have forgotten wide-brimmed hats, 
   Sunday back-seat leather rides & church, 
The doorlock like a silver cane, the broad backs 
   Swaying or the great moan deep churning, 
   & the shimmer flick of flat sticks, the lurch 
Forward, skip, hands up Ailey-esque drop, 
When you have forgotten the meaningful bop, 

          3. 

Hustlers and their care-what-may, blasé 
   Ballet and flight, when you have forgotten 
Scruffy yards, miniature escapes, the way   
   Laundry lines strung up sag like shortened 
   Smiles, when you have forgotten the Fish Man
Barking his catch in inches up the street 
"I've got porgies. I've got trout. Feeesh 

          4. 

Man," or his scoop and chain scale, 
   His belief in shad and amberjack; when 
You have forgotten Ajax and tin pails, 
   Blue crystals frothing on marble front 
   Steps Saturday mornings, or the garden 
Of old men playing checkers, the curbs 
White-washed like two lines out to the burbs, 

          5. 

Or the hopscotch squares painted new 
   In the street, the pitter-patter of feet 
Landing on rhymes. "How do you 
   Like the weather, girls? All in together girls,
   January, February, March, April... " 
The jump ropes' portentous looming, 
Their great, aching love blooming. 

          6. 

When you have forgotten packs of grape 
   Flavored Now & Laters, the squares 
Of sugar flattening on the tongue, the elation 
   You felt reaching into the corner-store jar, 
   Grasping a handful of Blow Pops, candy bars 
With names you didn't recognize but came 
To learn. All the turf battles. All the war games. 

          7. 

When you have forgotten popsicle stick 
   Races along the curb and hydrant fights,
Then, retrieve this letter from your stack 
   I've sent by clairvoyant post & read by light.
   For it brought me as much longing and delight. 
This week's Father's Day; I've a long ride to Philly.
I'll give this to Gramps, then head to Black Lily. 
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Migration
Major Jackson, 1968

 

Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
James Lewis's Hands
Constance Quarterman Bridges
My Grand (James Lewis) loved her (Ellen) very much even though he had many lady friends.
                  -Mother's Journal

James loved the ladies.
The women came with pies, oozed
words, as sticky as their pies.
They brought fresh churned butter,
thick and fluffy as summer clouds.
They buzzed and rubbed their legs
together, queen bees, drunk with want,
drawn to honey of his Cherokee tongue
and deep-set, promising, midnight eyes.
Even after James went to Staunton, Virginia,
miles away, brought Ellen to his marriage
bed, women came, as surely as seasons.
They followed James to his ripe fields,
shadows trailing a summer sun.
There he hummed, but never sang.

His long lean shadow cast him larger
as he stroked tobacco leaves with strong
brown hands; his eyes stroked them.
They watched his hands weave baskets, 
pull cane for chair bottoms, tried to will
his hands on them even for a moment.
Evenings his fingers wandered the curve
of Ellen’s neck and throat.
They entangled themselves in her hair,
made love to her lips and eyes, followed
familiar paths of her varied textures.
His warm lips and body in full and varied
tones sang his love songs for her.
Night ears heard him say, Beloved El.
She whispered her name for him, Song Bird.
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Sticks
Thomas Sayers Ellis
My father was an enormous man
Who believed kindness and lack of size
Were nothing more than sissified
Signs of weakness. Narrow-minded,

His eyes were the worst kind
Of jury — deliberate, distant, hard.
No one could out-shout him
Or make bigger fists. The few

Who tried got taken for bad,
Beat down, their bodies slammed.
I wanted to be just like him:
Big man, man of the house, king.

A plagiarist, hitting the things he hit,
I learned to use my hands watching him
Use his, pretending to slap mother
When he slapped mother.	 

He was sick. A diabetic slept 
Like a silent vowel inside his well-built,
Muscular, dark body. Hard as all that
With similar weaknesses

— I discovered writing,
How words are parts of speech
With beats and breaths of their own.
Interjections like flams. Wham! Bam!

An heir to the rhythm
And tension beneath the beatings,
My first attempts were filled with noise, 
Wild solos, violent uncontrollable blows.

The page tightened like a drum
Resisting the clockwise twisting
Of a handheld chrome key,
The noisy banging and tuning of growth.
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Leda, After the Swan
Carl Phillips, 1959
Perhaps,
in the exaggerated grace
of his weight
settling,

the wings
raised, held in
strike-or-embrace
position,

I recognized
something more
than swan, I can't say.

There was just
this barely defined
shoulder, whose feathers
came away in my hands,

and the bit of world
left beyond it, coming down

to the heat-crippled field,

ravens the precise color of
sorrow in good light, neither
black nor blue, like fallen
stitches upon it,

and the hour forever,
it seemed, half-stepping
its way elsewhere--

then
everything, I
remember, began
happening more quickly.
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
A Bird in Hand
Amber Flora Thomas

I’ve memorized its heart pounding into my thumb.
Breath buoys out. My fingers know how to kill,
closing on the bird’s slippery head.

I don’t remember. Was it that beak bit my chin?
Was it a claw cut my wrist? I blow feathers
away from its chest, smelling pennies and rain.

Skin like granite, a real white-blue, flecked
by knots of new growth. I found my need,
cold in cupped palms, just the way I was taught.

I return to account for whose neck falls around
backwards. Eyes that go cataract bring clouds.

That fat pearl with wings looks like water disappearing in me.

Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Atlantic City Sunday Morning
Gregory Pardlo
                  Plow-piled snow shrouded 
         in shadow from the abbreviating sun, snow 
frosted with the exhaust of tour buses. Pigeons shift in congress. 
                  Sun glints windshields & chrome 
         like cotton blooms in the monitors. Surveillance here is catholic. 

From cornices cameras oscillate like raven-heads 
                  nestled along palisades. Cameras mind entrances,
                       pedestrians, traffic, 
          the landscape from land's end to Baccarat Boulevard. I tend
the security station, notice briefly among these half-dozen screens, 
                  a phantom looping through the busy breeze-way & out 

         of view. Unseasonable sparrows mating? Something 
clutched like a gambler's fist, keening a halo from daylight 
                  folded across the corridor like gift-wrap. 
        Little tumbleweed, if you are sparrows, you are bishops
of risk wrestling toward pain's bursaries. Jake and angel I believe 

                    I could have conjured that woman now entering 
          the asphalt current to protect you. Mira! she might be saying. But
she'd be speaking to me. Waving her cashier's apron against traffic,
                    through the street like a banner out to where 
          her good deed is witnessed. Out to where I interpret her behavior 

as censure. As if the pixels of light depicting the world she is framed in
                   were impastoed by me to the monitor's glass canvass (to
                        be arranged 
         according to the obligation of my anonymous nobility), 
what good could I do 
                  to alter the facts of the world as it hustles around her? 
                       What odds 

         do those birds stand to chance anyway? 
Prevention is akin to greed. Say recovery 
                   and a sermon salts the air. Consider the postcards here 
         on the counter beside me. They'll do no more than carry the
             word of their 
senders, speak pictures: Jersey's domed capital looks like a junkyard 

                   of church bells, a reliquary of Sundays 
          wracked and laid to rest. Noble martyr, Trenton fears no law
of diminishing returns, says it "makes, 
                   the world takes:" Another prays the next wet pebble 
         be the one that makes a beach. Paydirt. We should be so lucky. 
www.flickr.com
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Copyright
Gregory Pardlo
Paul Green
Of course I know the story of the scorpion
and the frog. I've known Biggers all my life.
I’ve cast down my buckets where I've
stood with them, shoulder to shoulder, our bodies
bent like double helices in the fields. And
when the mob came for Dick didn’t I sit anyways
outside his quarters all night like a jailhouse lawyer,
him ignorant of the nature of his custody?
It was me who kept the townsmen at bay after he
provoked them. My cousin among them
had watched him grin and wheedle,
consort with white people carelessly, our naïve
and guileless women, at the civil gathering where
he was my ward. And later, because of me,
his offense went unanswered, un-atoned.
I know the hearts of men are governed
by the endowments of nature. Some children
are faithful. Some are made to obey.


Charles Leavell
First I had to capture the boy 
in a thicket of print.
He tried to make my happy darky
dangerous, make my darky
an idea that I couldn’t bear to swallow. So
I made him a hothouse flower, writing, His hunched
shoulders and long, sinewy arms that dangle
almost to his knees, but warned
readers that Nixon, the "Brick
Slayer," as I christened him,
had none of the charm of speech
or manner that is characteristic of so many
southern darkies. I am a gentle man.
He is very black—almost pure Negro. Withal,
I had to cleave that slate with first words, in order
to get at him, get the nature right, and I
could almost hear the stone sing
like the brick
he used to beat the white woman
who discovered him, that June day in '38,
bagging her Philco radio—as if it were
me doing the slaying.


Richard Wright
One quarter argument two
quarters confession. I engender
my experience in the characters
and they thrive; for the balance
I tracked Robert Nixon, so-called
"Brick Slayer," through rows
and columns, finding him breathing
in the margins of the Chicago Tribune.
I loved that boy like redemption
loves a sinner and saw in him
the mute pronouncements of the proletariat,
mutiny on the Potemkin. No wonder I
was reluctant to ditch the script I wrote
with Paul Green, that playwright 
accused of being a lover of the down-
trodden. Much as I wished to avoid
controversy, when Welles demanded
a Bigger without dream sequences, without
singing, for the Broadway production,
I sighed relief. I knew I had to protect
my creation from the caustic
ministrations of Southern sensibility.
By North Star or candlelight, by necessity,
I had to spirit him away.


Robert Nixon
More crucial than surveillance in the round
house of corrections called a panopticon is the being
watched the prisoner faces raising hairs on the ears.
Like the sun’s warmth on the back recognized as light,
recognized as presence. White noise.
The confinement of plain sight. The vertiginous spin
siphoning off the will to question, to doubt,
g-forces pinning back the cheeks, prisoners
reduced to images affixed by the weight of the guard's
transparent eyeball the unreasoning stump of muscle
itself imprisoned like the figures stenciled on an urn.
www.flickr.com
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Title It Shotgun Wound
Gregory Pardlo
for Jackson Pollack

on the bar of the Cedar Tavern: the shot 
that got spilled after you'd taken several rounds,
making the oak bar report 
your vigor each time with the glass 
emptied of its mayhem. 
Before the impulse could travel its course 
to spark your hand reaching again for the glass, 
Creeley's clumsy ebullience, bounding to the bar, 
spilled the bitter dose. As he apologized, 
you were thinking there's no such thing 
as accident. A moment ago, you were ready 
to put a nickel in the Wurlitzer and dance your way 
back to Easthampton. But now, you took him 
by the shoulders, gripped him like the bathroom door 
you once ripped from its hinges because of the mirror on it. 
You wanted to discipline him, instruct him in 
the logic of charged particles, make Creeley feel 
the stray electron as he may have 
when his eyeball caught pixied windshield 
as an infant. If you had known 
that child's long months stifling tears 
for fear of aggravating the wound, 
you would have marveled how he stored his grief 
as you marveled now his standing up to your bully- 
face. Everyone thought you knew each other, 
how you looked just then in one another's arms.

www.flickr.com
Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
Fixed
Christopher Stackhouse

 

Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

Cave Canem @ The Academy
next
He Dreams of Falling
Ruth Ellen Kocher
At the table in patio seating, 
a young man starched into my evening 
in waiter black and white-- 
he's probably named John, Tom, 
something less spectacular than the busboy 
named Ari at the table beside me. 
He is a boy I've seen and I hide that from him, 
a silence he doesn't understand as he turns away
not remembering that a week ago while waiting for a bus 
I saw him step over the legs of an old
homeless woman
sprawled on the sidewalk. His foot 
not clearing her arm, caught, 
so that he jerked her body 
while a consciousness 
almost found her but didn't, 
just stirred somewhere below her face. 
In the spiral where he turned he glanced 
not at the woman but to see who'd seen. 
He saw me watching him, jack-lighted and drawn 
into the warm ceremony that fell through him. 
I understood this explosion, 
the burn from the beginning, 
there when a bus passes, or a waiter 
quietly puts down your check.
He could be my brother, 
have parents at home in Ohio where there is a small lie 
buried in a garden with snow peas and basil. 
There may be another breaking the soil, 
dogs who bark into the woods, 
constellations who see our freeways as spines-- 
or he may miss a warm climate, 
groves of oranges measuring the circular 
scent of weight each time a heavy fruit falls. 
He may know that secretly 
the hearts of children conspire to stop 
when parents close their bedroom doors. 
But in this construction, 
the pace that takes him back and forth 
in the servitude of strangers,
he has forgotten, again, to feel for me, 
eating alone, a woman familiar 
deep in the eyes, 
with his same knowledge of movement 
that bends us forward, 
the instinct of our heels 
ready to turn against that jerk a body makes 
even in dead sleep, 
the stir that is less than we ask for, 
less than an old woman, 
or a woman growing old.