For days it has been raining a brittle, cold deluge
slicking the streets. Even the horses have been
dragging their buggies with haste to find refuge
in warm stables quicker than ever. I have seen
in this twilight the rain stippling the eastern window
panes, your lithe body, a brown glow against
the pewter grey of the sky, your scarf aglow
as you collect the bucket, now full of rainwater.
And you have come in smelling of sweat
and the biting salt of sex, poured the cold water
into my soldier’s flask, your eyes wet
with the laughter of satisfaction. I grow hard
again with gratitude as you soak a blue rag
and cool my brow and say, “Ah, my love, my stag.”

If you know your woman, know her rhythms,
know her ways; if you pay attention
to her all these years, you will know
how she comes and goes, how she slips
away even though she is standing in
the same place, you will know that her
world is drifting softly from you, and she
may not mean it, because all it is
is she is scared to be everything, scared
to be finding herself in you every time,
scared that one day she will ask herself,
all forty-plenty years of her, where
she’s been; if you know your woman,
you will know that mostly she will
come back, but sometimes, when she
drifts like this, something can make her
slip; and then coming back is hard.
If you know your woman, you can
tell by the way she puts on heels,
and she does not sashay for you
because it is not about you—how
she will buy some leather boots
and not say a word about it,
and you only see it when she walks
in one night, and she says she’s had
them forever; you will see the way
she loses the weight and pretends
it’s nothing, but when she isn’t seeing you
looking, you can see how she faces the mirror,
lifts her chest to catch a profile,
and how she casually looks at her
ass for signs of life. If you know
your woman, when you are gone, she
will find things to do, like walk
alone, go see a movie, find a park,
collect her secrets and you won’t know,
because she is looking for herself.
And she won’t tell you that she wants
to hear what idle men say when she
walks by them because what you say
is not enough. If you know your
woman, you know when she’s going
away and you will feel the big
hole of your love, and you can’t
tell why she’s listening and humming
to tunes you did not know she heard
before, and she will laugh softly
at nothing at all. If you know your
woman, you will see how she comes
and goes, and all you can do is wait
and pray she will come back to you,
because you know that your sins
are enough for her to leave and not return.


Hard not to want somebody standing by
the road with a bucket of water, somebody
ordinary but with eyes old as anything
around you to tell you that it is alright.
Who wouldn’t want to hear a woman
singing a baby song, a lullaby at the edge
of the night, something to calm you,
make you sleep because you know
that when you wake, she will be
there, her hands smelling of thyme
and garlic, onions; her rheumy
eyes still alive with questions
and knowing, her spotted skin basic as dirt,
and her gravel voice—such a calming thing
for you. Yes. You can’t blame me
for searching out the woman on
the hill, the woman with a bandana
and a long skirt stained with the dew
and grass from the thick bushes;
a woman with arms taut as
a tree’s limbs, a woman who will
hear all your sins and tell you
that you will still live until
tomorrow; a woman who will
embrace your body wracked
with disease and let you know
that crossing the water is not as harsh
as you might have thought,
to tell you that there is more light
in the grave than you may think.
We are all looking for the woman
with two hundred years under
her skin; the woman who can
touch you and remind you
that there are things bigger
than the sky, bigger than today.
And what we fear most is that
we will travel for years
always looking for her, but
never find her. We fear
this more than our nightmares.

Two trucks and five dogs behind the chain-link;
you come up to this pecan tree-shaded
colonial ranch bungalow, squatting low
and brown in the deep green. A man sits
as always, under the crowd of shadow
and light, looking over the low fence
to the stretch of tobacco and soy, acres spread
out under the constant Southern sky, from
here the rumble of the freight and the
midnight howl of the clandestine Amtrack
takes him into the history, long before
stocks and shares, government subsidies,
401ks, the gleaming monstrous trucks panting
in the driveway. Ask him about life,
he will tell you about the great grands
living up in Pittsburgh or the favorite
girl running things in the legislature—
how far we have come, what a truck
load of watermelons and the ingenuity
of two felons can do. He has bad dreams
of France, the blasted bodies of soldiers,
the mud, the idle hours waiting for
bombs, the dead, the dry dead on green
fields, staring; those are his only nightmares.
The rest are battle trophies, the funerals
for those big-bellied white landowners,
all dead falling into wells—a breeze,
a circle of confusion from whiskey
on a suffocating August day, a wrong
step, a flood of guilt for a life of sin
sending them hurtling their useless selves
into the mossy wells—all trophies, the things
a man can look at and say, “God is watching.”
He is a man at peace with it all, when
you find him, when you come off the twolane
highway, right by Talbot’s
peach stand and liquor store, take the old
dust road for four miles in until you come
to a long stand of pecan trees, and this
homestead of cool air, dogs, and rusting
trucks—you will find him here—he never
left. They all went, headed North,
got a new language, but he came back,
ever after the war, after white women,
after good wine, he came back, old country
boy, to keep the gravestones washed clean,
to stand guard, to sometimes walk
to that place where the tracks used
to cross, to squat on the stony ground
and listen to the ghosts of those boys
thanking him for staying back to hear
them. He knows he has the power
to keep those spirits where they must
stay: and when he goes, he will
have a hand on them, and that
will be good, so good.

The city is crowded with head-bowed dreamers,
they are searching for pennies. A woman as old
as the pliant boards she stands on, as old
as the shallow-roofed shelter beneath the house
where in the wet season, the rats sought
warmth in the frowzy and sour scent
of fear sweat runaways; waiting for open
roads, for news of a creaking cart to take
them West and the North, to Winnipeg,
to Edmonton, to places too cold
for people finders; too barren for anyone
to care that black folks are raising
a city in the middle of a prairie—
a woman, old as those stones of the dead
whispering to the living, urging
them on. These dreamers have been
told to seek out the pennies, side
by side on the road, heads face-up,
waiting to be found, waiting to be collected,
waiting for the searcher’s head
to flame with the shock of prophecy
fulfilled; waiting for the name
of that old woman who has walked
these paths late at night, dropping
copper pennies like seeds of faith,
offering prayers like first rains
over the pennies, willing them to grow,
bloom, leap into wild giant
entanglements of mustard trees.
The name is spoken, again and again,
centuries of searchers, centuries
of believers, leaping the rocks
and rotting logs, heading back
along the river’s edge to the city
of bones; the white city of caught
light shining against the night.

A dollop of white smeared liberally on the off
white embossed sheet, generous water so the spread
is untidy, the paper pulping, then a tab of blue,
its veins crawling across the uneven surface;
summer before sunlight, then the storm
of black deep in the belly of the white
paste; and the inky morning light over
the steep steel surfaces of the city is Pittsburgh
washed in a constant thin rainfall;
and a shattering crowd of starlings sprints
madly over the gloom like a wild spotted
silk scarf, its carefully embroidered filigree
of leaves swirling over the sorrow
of our mourning. This is how far
from home we are, far from the useless
combustible abundance of pine needles
in a forest, from the staining annoyance
of red dirt, from the steaming peach groves,
from the skies that stretch beyond us
towards the sea—a mountain of swollen
clouds filling us with a sense of God
in the heavens. In this city, men no longer
look to the sky for news; we are all
illiterate to this dialect. Rain and snow
always surprise us, and we know that
the crazy birds are drunk with berries
and will die for want of a landing. In this
city those who keep staring South, waiting
for news that the rivers have all fallen
into their walls and that the land is still
waiting for us to plant seed and trim
the hustas now entangled with dry leaves
over our people’s graves, will be disappointed.
More are coming walking across the bridge,
undone, with nothing but sorrow in their eyes
and a mouthful of questions for ways
to survive in this cold. There are days,
you promise, on a Friday night, with change
hot in your pocket and your stomach
warm with good juice, when you can
catch in the sky a hint of red and then flirtatious
lavender of wisteria. Then you feel
to sing like good old country folk do.

So sometimes you just want to shoot the poet
because he carries no piano, no guitar,
no horn you could smash or sink
in deep water; the poet is just a head
of conundrums; and you know that
this divining music man, this trickster
with two faces, one to ritualize
holiness, the other to sniff out
the perfume and money in a woman’s
skin; this filthy priest with clean
eyes and stained hands is the shadow
you carry for months while these
spirits swirl around you—young
man, you will die young once
you have exorcised this century
of souls, cast them out into light,
into the bodies of the penitents;
the broken hearts of actors who
give of themselves each night—
young man, you have always
had an old soul, an ancient
poet’s soul, and your back has
carried every instrument of praise
there is, a sack of noises
dragging you down, while you
walk through this world, and
sometimes your forget yourself
because this poet consumes you,
and you wonder who is talking,
who is carrying you down, and you
want to shoot the poet, but
this is all you have left,
quick-stepping dance man,
this is all that makes you breathe,
this journeyman of many voices,
who sometimes, after eating
his fill of the world, will stretch
out and sleep, leaving you
light for a spell, easy in your skin,
finding the calm of death.

When does the debt end? How long must pass
to make up for your hundred years of taking
from people everything they have and giving
nothing in return? When is the debt
full paid? How much thieving and
killing must a man do before it turns
into sin, when all he is doing is taking
back what was taken from him, from
his father, from his father’s father?
How many bales of cotton must a man
steal to make up for all the cotton
he picked that went into somebody
else’s pocket, somebody else’s belly?
How many stacks of wood can you
take before you have covered
all the losses, before you have
repaid what a man has done
to that pink private place
of your mother’s mother, that thing
that left her covered in shame
for the rest of her life; how many
pianos can you steal for the
bones in the backwoods, for
the anthem of those leading
us to the blackened bloated bodies
of those boys who they lynched
at midnight under flambeaux light,
how much thieving can a body do
before it balances things out? How
much can you take to feed the gap
in a people’s memory, the erasure
of the language of the ancestors,
the deafness they caused you
to the whisper of the gods, the house
of bones, the valley of bones,
the deep rift valley of bones,
covered by the weight of the Atlantic,
where the water stripped these bodies
of all their flesh, all they had
in the bowels of their undoing?
How much does a man have to steal
before he can say, “Now I have
all they took, now all I am getting
is what they got fair and square,
now we are even, now I have
what is mine, and every time
I take from them from now on,
you can call it thieving”?

Ms. Ophelia with the watery eyes
was well cared for by her lanky
big-bellied husband, Scutter, who would
look at her laid out in white
on their bed and think what a sin
it must be for him to mount her
and do with her what he would
night after night on the road
back from the grounds in the string
of huts smelling of stale collard
greens and the raw smell of slaves,
the smell of the woman who gave
him milk, the smell that makes
him hungry and small and horny
all at the same time, but for
Ophelia, with her watery eyes,
he sees only the parchment
of her skin and feels only the need
to cover her, keep her as pure
as she first was—his nightmare
is to see Willie Boy, the strapping
African, pushing into her, like
a dog would into a bitch—
he wakes up sweating hard,
and sleeps only after some rum.
So come each anniversary
he will find something grand
for her. The girl slave Berniece
or the pony she loved so much,
or the French perfume he bought
in Mobile or the Chinese fan
a traveling huckster sold to him
for some produce and his last coins;
but this time, he wants her to have
a gift of pure beauty, so he will
sell to Nolander from Georgia
a slave and a half for a piano,
which is how folks lived then;
how a slave could be here one day
in the bosom of family, right
beside the old live oak tree where
the afterbirth and umbilicus
was buried and the next day: gone
where the soil smells different,
where folks talk and eat different,
and where you can’t read the sky for rain.
But he got the plans, and old
Berniece, the matriarch, and that small
Boy, Papa Charles, were gone,
uprooted, taken away, just bring
some music to Ms. Ophelia; ah
the currency in this instruction—blood
in that piano, everything in that piano,
and she plays it day and night,
while he plants his seed in brown soil.

Before your journey across the steaming earth
towards the water’s edge, before you step in,
feel the tickling warmth slowly washing dirt
from your salt-dry skin, check for everything:
make sure you have a flask of rainwater,
the knotted torso of a ginger-root, a flower
that broke out of a brittle shell, a piece of paper
with simple verbs scrawled all over
its plain surface, and a piece of iron as old
as you can find. The man who makes this journey
without iron will soon falter, will grow cold
at the sight of the City of Bones. His body
will shiver with fever and the congregation
will sing softly, “Too late, too late for heaven.”

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