MUSEUM OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY
(Basement exhibits: September 2016)
This is the lumbar region
of the world, a knotted spine
whose segments radiate pain.
The Middle Passage still casts
shadows here: night sweats, damp fears
still cramped by unseen chains.
How live as property? each
orifice inspected twice a day.
Peremptory gestures that mean
strip, lie mute; mean choked-back screams.
A prohibition unto death
on contact between eyes.
How live as inventory?
Lists of half-names tallied
in estates or shuffled out
of pigeonholes and slapped on
barrel-heads hint what’s denied.
A stubborn slow migration
north to alien ground, ticked out
in scrap-booked railroad stubs, hints
otherwise. Somehow by bright
church hats or bluesy gospel
tunes, through gnarled dead-ended
passages they made a way,
in time laid paths where there were
none; left Egypt’s black despair
behind. Yet hauled stone and hewed
wood still caw. O country, you
know well first sin. Our spiny
serpent wakes, then rises ring-
side from bunched rows of cotton
bolls again. No cure for snakes --
not goshawks, eagle-strikes or prayer –
can last: we’re bound, winged angel
to its demon, in a whole. Though
dignity acknowledged might
some day help repair this one
sciatica of soul.
Version first published in What Rough Beast, July 16, 2019