BLACK IN GRAY AMERICA
(in memory of Sam Cornish)
You recalled a city of stinks:
the shabby breath of yellow teeth,
filthy socks on crusty feet,
blood-spill dried on the sidewalk.
The dirt-floor basement room
your mother tried to sweep clean
rustled all night as rodents
named and renamed you in dreams.
The sorry carcass of Baltimore
coughed up feverish gases
that drove you north to Boston
where you rewrote Richard Wright
in tough black-letter alphabets
even the shyest child could read.
When I met you in the Booksmith
I knew that inhaling the pointed dark
and exhaling crystalline spores
wasn’t your aesthetic mode.
Over whiskey we bent our brains
to map wood and tarpaper shacks
filled with timid barefoot children
in the gulch between Roxbury
and Jamaica Plain. We offered
ourselves on the bloody fields
of lower education, our ties
strangled and flopping like tongues.
You understood the gangsters
lurking in the corners of our eyes.
You spoke the lone upholstered word
that opened books without cracking
the most fragile, dried-glue spines.
You laughed in the tones of those
for whom the bell tolls, peppering
the streetscape with dust and ashes.
Later, after the children flew
to asbestos-shingled coops,
you cooked by pouring bourbon
into spaghetti sauce and tainting
the mess with the hottest peppers
the inmates of insane asylums
in the Yucatan dared to grow.
More comfortable in the dark
despite the books that lit your lair,
you scrawled plats of the city
of stinks on the backs of your hands.
Farrell and Wolfe, favorite authors,
along with Wright and Baldwin,
enlivened your dullest moments.
When you threated to run away
with a famous white woman poet
I realized how intersected
your world was, how thickly paved.
When you slammed yourself against
the walls of a house in Wayland
and shattered a hundred egos
I clenched myself with remiss.
You knew what you were living.
Being black in gray America
deranged itself while you leaned back
and let movies and comics wash
away the debris, leaving something
I can’t identify, stainless
and bold and placed exactly where
no one expects a monument.
Father Snow is more Catholic
than the Pope. When he greets me
in Latin, I cringe with shame
for my atheist manner, slurring
my vowels. The actual fact
of faith never arises. Angels
throb in the innocent sky.
A cloud becomes a face trailing
a beard of curly vapors.
He always asks what color
my easily bruised ego
has assumed that day. He inquires
whether the river shallows
have coughed up any rare shellfish.
His glass eye wanders here and there
while his real one focuses
more firmly than his talons.
His fat old housekeeper
complains that sex with Father Snow
keeps her awake every night,
all night, his appetite sturdy
as a football hero’s and honed
by the expertise he gained through
his seminary education
and his adventures amid the nuns.
Every day he shakes my hand
as if we’d never met before.
He smiles a brazen rainbow smile
and always looks so expectant.
I want to explain that the god
he cannibalizes weekly
deplores such public excess
and prefers to lurk in the shade.
I want him to understand that
the groans of organs depress
that one authentic god, the one
I often meet in the coffee shop
where Father Snow rarely goes,
preferring tea at the rectory
with his housekeeper brimming
with adoration as he sips.
That honest god reads the paper,
usually the New York Times,
with care and then sighs a pale
chemical sigh that lingers
after he sheds his human form
and returns to the fourth dimension.
He always leaves a generous tip
and a word of advice, often
in a language I don’t understand.
Not Latin, Hebrew or Greek.
Not Hindi, Arabic, Chinese.
I should write down those words
phonetically and show them
to Father Snow. But he’d shake
his big fistulous head and note
that everything is true in the clouds,
where the angels he most admires
embrace in gusty passions
we should never express aloud.
A LIVE GRENADE
Plodding through a prescribed text
at dawn, you handle your bible
like a live grenade. The shimmer
of angelic choirs rarely bathes you
in the trills for which you long.
The naked face of deity
neither endorses or reproaches
your little bookish ritual.
But sometimes when we’re crossing
a raving boulevard you glow
a moment with unearthly passion—
a flavor you never share in public
or private but have hoarded
for the last, fatal implosion
when all your resources combine
with subatomic fervor.
Thus the live grenade. I wonder
when you’ll pull the pin. Our friend
died on Monday, leaving his books
to Goodwill, his tired old clothes
to the tired old poor of Brighton,
his tired old spouse to herself.
The stroke that killed him still lurks
in the darkest room of his house.
We should think of him instead
of the frugal breakfast we’ll share
when you tire of courting spirits
of mainly historical interest.
You’d never attempt to invoke
the dead of our lives; but sometimes
when you trot off for a morning
of napping at the Athenaeum
you leave a wake the color of stars.
Maybe Dutch-Reformed Melville
would hear a hymn in your footfall.
But all I hear is the snicker
of your animus pulling the pin
from that metaphorical grenade,
threatening to blast away
all four dimensions, disproving
the laws of physics that keep us
from toppling into ourselves.