The masters are yet dead. Wanting to be human,
I tried to rewrite The Waste Land. The canon’s reach
casts ruinous light. The masters’ pens breach
this page where, above, my own hand spectates. Babylon
risen, exorcism in reverse, whose nature upended now?
If I remember my own name, then I can ego
my way through this crowd of shadows
that cross the bridge of my back mid bow.

I slept in the Fifth House of Modernism,
beneath stars that offered no light—dust
full of fear, my own dead skin encrusting
room corners and my mind in a schism
between image and luck. When I awoke,
the empire rose in me and I was risen
from its dead letters to the letter, chiseled
by my own invisibility, this war between smoke

and reflection, between self versus self conniving
in the longest hall of my fear to remain there.
Many doors scraped open, their alabaster
knobs ghost-turned while voices as convincing
as a mother slipped out. I looked into one room
and found a window broken into a smile, wind
whistling Confederately through the glass teeth and
tell me how I grinned and hollered back a tune:

“Away! Away! I wish the masters dead.” To be freed
I tried to revise The Waste Land but blacker,
where Margaret Garner speaks to Margaret Walker
on a barge crossing the Mississippi River. I see
the aftermath of this convenience, slow
in the river mud fondling the delay.
They will make it across. They will pray.
They will drown beneath what they know,

that the living have undone so many
and the river’s dark portion was the color
of a baby’s dried blood, the neck wound dolorous
in its grin-shaped curve, another mangled
bridge into history. Who could name the salve
between two women death had undone,
one woman so sure of whom she’d undone:
Garner the master. Garner the slave.

The river unfurls its god tongue
in Nigger Jim’s voice. He speaks of rivers
as the river, soul grown deep into a river
carving a country like an infant’s throat.
There are many ways to freedom, with a hymn’s
lithe blade or a butcher knife. Even now the blood
that runs through the river runs through my hand,
black as a cock that caws for dawn hilt to hide till mum.

Dawn does not know it cannot drown me.
Sunrise gilds all water the same dull pageant
and I am water after all. Sun-rinsed,
my skin coal-hisses, a conquered city, the first flame.
Call me Chicago, call me Lake Michigan.
I, an unnatural mirror for enlightenment,
spit back ash rivaling Pompeii. Relent
to whom? For what? Night will come again.

Its stars’ epistrophes, their bright punctuations,
insult the dark and puncture night again
with haunting past tense. Emblazoned
with myths and maps of light, imagined
cartographies making use of fire and fear,
night will come again, a cover, beast’s blanket
or runaway’s winter shawl. A cliché of crows sinks
its hatchlings in a man’s mouth. He rears

their small nights to maturity. He speaks
in sunsets. This is the end of the world.
Even an ended world needs a mythology.
Like snow, like breath, like rust, like feet,
night will come again and over a sobbing
woman who has found her mother’s grave
for the first time and succumbed to elegy.
Her cries bleed over the dirt with a strange insistency.

Away, away, a world drowns beneath this knowledge:
Hurston hidden in the Garden of Heavenly Rest.
Eden’s daughter in the dust. White dresses nest
in a magnolia. Their bodiless silhouettes
sit watch as the passing season makes tombs
of the trees. Sweet and fresh, the sudden smell
of burning years pass by. Elegies ride the tail-
winds. Splayed bodies for a sail, the womb-

swell of ghosts pushes ships toward a present
filled with flags and saddles, religions and burned drums.
Do not permit them passage, Lord. Imaginations
can be so open and what steps through, what sprints
from the past, is just another unjust symptom
of drapetomania fondling this fiction’s curtains
like moonlight. Do not permit it passage, Lord. A stain
uninvited, there’s no telling what light will do. Some

drunk off the street hollers at passersby the interpretation
of “Juba Dis” but no one understands, the hexed threads
of his iris another river to get lost on. What was said
by the hambone hustler harping on predictions
divined from his palms was that love was not enough,
and what I thought was love was only a gateway
for the dead. Once I had a lover, not gutless
but as much imprisoned in himself as he was afraid of

imprisoning me in his splayed body. He would lie
down with me and tell me all the ghosts who rushed
to him in the dark: an uncle who died hard whose eyes
were the color of two deep injuries; pale women who touched
and gaped at him; a more demonic form the size
of what could have no size that choked him while,
on the other side, his ex-lover slept. This he told me
after thrusting into my mouth as though building for us

a myth to explain what had happened and would inevitably,
again, happen. “I could draw a picture of it for you,”
he said and, looking around for tools, set about doing
until I told him no. He shared all his so-called demons:
the undead kin, the blood he kept secret, the semen
he didn’t. Three years later, in an obscure text,
he tells me this without telling me, as though my own blood
would respond to clues. “I never came in you,” he didn’t

say. Nor did I not want him to—to say, to come.
Already in me he was and wasn’t and I was ready
to be refashioned in his image cell by cell. The slum
alphabet of forgiveness petrified my unsteady hand.
I watched from a phone screen’s glow my life’s
buttons pop all at once and behind the fabric
hid the same life, bloated, gothic with flies.
I was already infiltrated, already a livid fable.

I splayed my body’s opiated rooms. Rank
wind galloped from the cavity, dry as the Harmattan.
It must be winter in me. Why rush back
into invisibility? Father, is that you? My harm?

                My father must have seen such sights—
                he was very old when he died—
                or heard of them,
                or had this danger touch him

                my father was not old when he died
                but he looked as the possessed look
                his face an apiary a wasp den prying
                like a fact from a story’s gap I shook
                him in my nightmares and all the drugs
                spilled from the wasp-size holes
                never knowing what drug it was
                that took him I made them all his to hold

                we counted them and they were twelve
                my father the Father who carried the end
                of civilization which is the beginning of time
                in his nose his lungs his mouth his mind
                in his veins dries up the river of second chances
                he never shared his demons with me
                but he made new demons like new dances
                to entertain himself the King the king
the king

and danger touched him, sniffed
his crown, and deemed it unworthy, inedible,
and ate the flesh instead. What is life if
not overindulgent, a giant from the Bible
meaning one man’s monster is another man’s test?
“Be humble,” says the hero, “Lil bitch,”
replies the chorus and the epic of our lives rests
in a radio’s top-ten playlist, in the darkness

there and no one will ever see, in the stereo’s
electric heart circuiting in a boy’s chest. John Henry,
let the man breathe, let the reins of his veins go.
Your spooky love won’t do, John Henry.
Your boogie-woogie love won’t do, a lover’s face
carved into a map and who could leave this violet
city—sorry, I meant violent; I meant to trace
the scar on an enslaved woman’s forehead

caused by a mule’s kick. The scar is the gate.
I think we’ll find our answers there, the how
we got here, into the mind of York shaking
a deer off his back for his master to devour.
Into the mind of a darky specimen tamed
by a hug, by a white woman’s smile.
Into the mind of a polyester suit framed
by black hands and a white mind. John Henry, chile,

is that you in danger of being touched?
Are you Mapplethorpe’s “Super Nigger,”
your hammer near hand, cool desire cutting
you off from the neck up? Is that you, Bigger?
Should’ve saw you coming a mile away,
cutting off that white woman’s head
cause you lost your own. Which way
hea’ben be is where I be headin’.

I saw you, Mother Mary, floating in a puddle,
your porcelain neck cracked and letting all
the water in. Can’t drown that way, cuddled
by the waves you birthed, water your gall
and ointment, your rage and your mercy.
I told a friend to stop messing with the loa
and he heard “the Lord.” Have mercy,
my Chicago Southern tongue don’t know

a from r. Don’t know London
from Brooklyn. All bridges lead one place.
Crossing the water, the dead who have undone
so many raise their hands in attendance,
raise their heads in canon, a ripple,
unstable blue fogging through translucence,
torsos through which ugly fish nibble
the nothing liminalities, starving, senseless.

Heaven is where I’ll be headed.
North of this bridge some god trophies
the ether. I could never be human, bled
out historical until ichor retires this entropy.
Father, I am the black gold of the sun.
Smoke me, coal-haired, my teeth incubating a word,
one eye for the living and one eye for the gone.
This world was always not my world.

What I see is split-screened and never-ending:
a deer walks to Lake Michigan and sips
from the putrid water, then looks up, the tips
of its antlers prick the sky like stars lending
soft fire to the scene; a hunter lends his arrow
to its bow and flexes a shoulder blade, elbow bent
to aim into the deer’s side a pierced distance.
Air divides from itself to reveal its spectral marrow.

O, choosy god, choose me. The blue-
amber sky requiems my solstice.
I am the longest day of myself, blissed
here in truncated perfection, a hue
of indictments I made into keys.
Shoot me, hunter. By all things planetary,
sweet, I swear the arrowhead’s pathway
into me will be the doorway, entry

into my own self-raised heaven. My head
I raze. My Babel tongue a tender memorial.
Glossolalia in exorcism, a territorial
narrative—this glossary of organs, this shedding
of seconds for a pen. I move without editor.
You see this: the blinding light reprimanded,
revision inconclusive, cannons wasting the land, and
the masters, their remnants, garnered in their human error.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Note: “Mastery” borrows from the writings of James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kendrick Lamar, and Margaret Walker.