The Golden Shovel
after Gwendolyn Brooks
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.
Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal
afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we
know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-
ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-
ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we
go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We
push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.
While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,
we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-
eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.
I said Folk was dressed in Blues but hairier and hemped.
After "We acoustic banjo disciples!" Jebediah said, "When
and whereforth shall the bucolic blacks with good tempers
come to see us pluck as Elizabeth Cotton intended?"
We stole my Uncle Windchime's minivan, penned a simple
ballad about the drag of lovelessness and drove the end
of the chitlin' circuit to a joint skinny as a walk-in temple
where our new folk was not that new, but strengthened
by our twelve bar conviction. A month later, in pulled
a parade of well meaning alabaster post adolescents.
We noticed the sand-tanned and braless ones piled
in the ladder-backed front row with their boyfriends
first because beneath our twangor slept what I'll call
a hunger for the outlawable. One night J asked me when
sisters like Chapman would arrive. I shook my chin wool
then, and placed my hand over the guitar string's wind-
ow til it stilled. "When the moon's black," I said. "Be faithful."
Ode to Big Trend
Pretty soon the Negroes were looking to get paid.
My partner, Big Trend, wiped his ox neck and said
He wasn't going to wait too much longer. You
Know that look your daddy gets before he whups you?
That's how Big Trend looked. There was a pink scar
Meddling his forehead. Most people assumed a bear
Like him couldn't read anything but a dollar,
But I'd watched him tour the used bookstore
In town and seen him napping so I knew he held more
Than power in those hands. They could tear
A Bible in two. Sometimes on the walk home I'd hear
Him reciting poems. But come Friday, he was the one
The fellas asked to speak to the boss. He'd go alone,
Usually, and left behind, we imagined the boss buckled
Into Trend's shadow because our money always followed.
The dead were still singing Turn the lights down low
Beneath Yellow Bridge where years before, clowning
And ass out, Stick jumped with nothing but the State
Championship trophy in his righteous clutch. The water
Was supposed to be deepest there, and for three seasons
Straight MVPs: Charlie "Fly" Kennison, Long Timmy Long,
And Rocket Jefferson, those are the names I knew, jumped
Free. But Stick's ankle broke. I fished him out, crumpled
And bawling like the day he was born, like an object of
Baptism, and a life of bad luck followed in the shape of
Floods and fractured lightning, and then, numb, tooth-
Less, and changed, the dead refused burial, striking out, 2
By 2, 4 by 4, from the morgue house to raise trouble at
The bridge. I started hearing birds everywhere after that.
Cocktails with Orpheus
After dark, the bar full of women part of me loves—the part that stood
naked outside the window of Miss Geneva, recent divorcée who owned
a gun, O Miss Geneva where are you now—Orpheus says she did
not perish, she was not turned to ash in the brutal light, she found
a good job, she made good money, she had her own insurance and
a house, she was a decent wife. I know descent lives in the word
decent. The bar noise makes a kind of silence. When Orpheus hands
me his sunglasses, I see how fire changes everything. In the mind
I am behind a woman whose skirt is hiked above her hips, as bound
as touch permits, saying don't forget me when I become the liquid
out of which names are born, salt-milk, milk-sweet and animal-made.
I want to be a human above the body, uprooted and right, a fold
of pleas released, but I am a black wound, what's left of the deed.
Even if you love the racket of ascension,
you must know how the power leaves you.
And at this pitch who has time for meditation?
the sea walled in by buildings. I do miss
the quiet, don't you? When I said, "Fuck the deer
antlered and hithered in fur," it was because
I had seen the faces of presidents balled into a fist.
If I were in charge, I would know how to fix
the world: free health care or free physicals,
at least, and an abiding love for the abstract.
When I said, "All of history is saved for us,"
it was because I scorned the emancipated sky.
Does the anthem choke you up? When I asked
God if anyone born to slaves would die
a slave, He said: "Sure as a rock descending
a hillside." That's why I'm not a Christian.
- Terrance Hayes