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Tiana Clark
Tiana Clark

A Louder Thing

Recorded for Poem-a-Day March 25, 2019.
About this Poem 

“I was haunted by the disturbing details of Kenneka Jenkins’ mysterious death at a Chicago hotel in 2017. I was saddened—but not surprised—to hear how her mother fought and begged the staff to find her missing daughter. Teresa Martin’s resolve reminded me of the gritty persistence from my own mother as well as Michael Brown’s and Emmett Till’s mothers. D. A. Powell writes, ‘the elegy originates in an age-old desire: to bring the beloved back from obscurity.’ A poem can’t bring anyone back from the dead, but in my attempted lament I wanted to investigate the contours of black mother love, a loud, all-caps-love that shreds the shroud of death, embodying the perpetual Mrs. Sallie Smith frantically searching for her little girl in the labyrinthine apartment building from ‘In the Mecca’ by Gwendolyn Brooks, repeating: ‘WHERE PEPITA BE?’”
—Tiana Clark

A Louder Thing

	    for Kenneka Jenkins and her mother

What is it about my mother’s face, a bright burn
when I think back, her teeth, her immaculate teeth

that I seldom saw or knew, her hair like braided
black liquorice. I am thinking of my mother’s face,

because she is like the mother in the news whose
daughter was found dead, frozen inside a hotel freezer.

My mother is this mourning mother who begged
the staff to search for her daughter, but was denied.

Black mothers are often seen pleading for their children,
shown stern and wailing, held back somehow by police

or caution tape—

a black mother just wants to see her baby’s body.
a black mother just wants to cover her baby’s body

with a sheet on the street. A black mother
leaves the coffin open for all the world to see,

and my mother is no different. She is worried
about seeing the last minutes of me: pre-ghost,

stumbling alone through empty hotel hallways
failing to find balance, searching for a friend,

a center, anyone, to help me home. Yes.
I’ve gotten into a van with strangers.

I’ve taken drugs with people that did not care
how hard or fast I smoked or blew.

But what did I know of Hayden? What did I know
of that poem besides my mother’s hands, her fist,

her prayers and premonitions? What did I know
of her disembodied voice hovering over the seams

of my life like the vatic song the whip-poor-will
makes when it can sense a soul dispersing?

Still. My mother wants to know where I am,
who I am with, and when will I land.

I get frustrated by her insistence on my safety
and survival. What a shame I am. I’m sorry, mom.

Some say Black love is different. Once,
I asked my mother why she always yelled

at me when I was little. She said I never listened
to her when she spoke to me in hushed tones

like a white mother would, meaning soft volume
is a privilege. Yeah, that’s right. I am using a stereotype

to say a louder thing. I am saying my mother
was screaming when she lost me in the mall once.

I keep hearing that voice everywhere I go.
I follow my name. The music of her rage sustains me.

Copyright © 2019 by Tiana Clark. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 25, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets. An excerpt from this poem originally appeared in an essay for Oxford American.

Copyright © 2019 by Tiana Clark. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 25, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets. An excerpt from this poem originally appeared in an essay for Oxford American.

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Classic Books of American Poetry

This collection of books showcases the masterpieces of American poetry that have influenced—or promise to influence—generations of poets. Take a look.

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Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames]

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words....

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
2007
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Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.
Adrienne Rich
1973
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Thanks

Listen 
with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
standing by the windows looking out 
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster 
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is
W. S. Merwin
1988
National Poetry Month Poster 2019
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How to Triumph Like a Girl

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let's be honest, I like
that they're ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don't you want to believe it?
Don't you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it's going to come in first.

Ada Limón
2018
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Peony

Why must I tell you this story, O little one
You’re just a bud-of-a-girl, who knows nothing

Now you are full-faced, bright as sun
Now you open your skirts pink, layered, brazen

Suffering is alchemy, change is God
Now you droop your head, heavy with rust

Sit, contemplate, what did Buddha say?
Old age, sickness, death, no one owns eternity            

Detach, detach, look away from the sun
Let your petals fall aimlessly                 

Don’t despair, little one, we are done
 

Marilyn Chin
2016
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A Poet's Glossary

Read about poetic terms and forms from Edward Hirsch's A Poet's Glossary (Harcourt, 2014), a book ten years in the making that defines the art form of poetry.  

Fall-Winter 2018 issue of American Poets