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Poems from In the Wake of the Glacier: New Selected Poems

     
  Master of Breath  
 
 

He was the master of semaphore
and could tap out code with the best,
and he could hold his breath

and swim underwater, without rest,
the length of five long city blocks.
Knots were a specialty he explored

in depth, and what he desired
or loved he became entangled with.
Yet nothing matched pushing off

from shore, paddling on Place-of-
Good-Water Pond, and feathering
the oars as the canoe came round.    

At dusk, in uniform, he would gather
with other boys, and he would happily
march with them, then halt,

on signal, to salute the flag; and, later,
when the camp grew quiet and a scout
blew “Taps,” he would say his prayers  

and go to bed. When he was 9 or 10,
this was enough — the beauty of sunlit
woods and starlit streams, his body’s

suppleness and strength, love of his family
and country, and his friends’ esteem —
but, at fifteen, words came to him  

and Wauwepex receded into the past.   
He would write the flawed brightness
of the world and untie himself

from childhood’s comforting myths.   
And he would sail the ocean of pain
and grief when his nation went to war  

and signal his distress when the flag
was burned. He would remember summer
at Good-Water Pond and twilight encampments

under quiet trees,  and each time a boy
like him returned in a body bag from Vietnam,

he would hold his breath and mourn.
 
 


 


 


  The African American Burial Ground at Sweet Briar College
 
     
 

            for Vrksaka Duli | tree turtle


61 Stones

I walked on a road, and a dark shape crossed
in front of me. It moved close to the ground, slow
and hulking. I could see its black and gray coat
and its short legs. Possum, I thought. The shadow
crossed and slipped into the brush.

I walked that far to see, to call him out
from that leafy darkness, but no shiver of grass
gave him away. I knew his purpose was to remind me
of the promise I’d made to the unnamed spirits,
to the buried slaves on the small hill, the wide circle

of darkened space where 61 stones marked their graves.

                                    ∞∞

How many slave cemeteries are there in America?
How many black bodies laid to rest in shallow graves
marked by small rough-hewn stones, first names
scratched across the faces of the stones, or no names
at all?
            No names at all. No names known. No gender
or year of birth, just 61 stones set down in the high grass.
No other details available — only a flat black line drawn
on a white page. No grief or rage. All they were      
was slaves.


Guardian Bee

A possum crosses the road. A bee buzzes my ear — searing,
shearing notes. A blackbird’s cry at dusk. Evening storm
that rips the sky: sheets of rain and lightning. Nightjars
chattering — markers, clarion calls — and a handful of cows
sulking in a field near the rim of a darkened pond.

Night sky will descend, wind will blow over them.
Woodpecker knocks the hidden pulse of white oaks,
and crickets scurry under red and blackened leaves.
I’ve come to meet you here.

                                    ∞∞

Bee buzzes again, a black song in my ear. It brushes
my hair, my cheek, and I see where you lie, silent
but not asleep.

I’ve come back to this space to keep my promise to you,
who lie still in the earth, without dreams to embrace,
without names, but not forgotten.

                                    ∞∞

Nightjar chattering. Woodpecker, the rap of his drum high up
in the white oak. Spring storm — sudden drops smacking
black earth, wind lifting in sheets of rain and thunder,
lightning slashing through the woods.

You lie in soft May earth, everything warm, blossoming,
everything bursting with life, yet you remain silent.
Your history obscured, you remain still under the uncut grass,
under tall trees, under rays of the rising and setting sun.

The state historical map charts your locations, but there are
no names, no names to scratch on the scant stones.

                                    ∞∞

I’ve come back as promised to listen for your voices.
I’ve come back to hear what you have to say —
your dark-skinned choir, your congregation of the dead.

I’ve returned with my arms open, with my mind clear,
with my mouth ready to speak.
                                                   
Bee buzzes my face, chastises me — the rasp of his wings,
his sting, the promise of his anger. My feet obey, and I walk

to where you lie silent, to where your nameless bones wait.


Black Ant

A large black ant with long antennae appears,
brandishes her wings — then vanishes.
 
A crow, as black as the winged ant, waits
at the waterfall; black-necked geese move off
as I walk near.

Thank you, dear spirits, for acknowledging me.
I’m ready to learn what your expunged names were,
what your work was.
                                                                  
Did you serve in the army, farm, or build houses?
Were you married? Have children? Did you wash clothes
for those who owned you? What were your names?

Did you lay with them at their bidding? Whose names
were your sons and daughters given? In which shallow bed
in the earth were they placed?

And where did you walk on this land you couldn’t own,
where your loved ones were chattel? What did you wish for
in every song or moan?

And what were the secret names you called yourselves?
You knew the ache of freedom in your bones.

                                    ∞∞

The winged black ant came to tell me and the crow and the bee,
the nightjar, blackbirds, crickets, and the summer storm,

cows by still water, geese in the clouded stream, possum in the leaves,
and the woodpecker rapping on the white oak’s bark.

It would change my life to know who you are.