These past few weeks I have been reading and rereading poems from two contemporary poets of note, Terrance Hayes and Jericho Brown. Both Hayes’ book, American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin, and Brown’s, The Tradition, mix personal poetry with political, specifically living as a black man in post-Obama America.
For the curious, here are two poems, one each by Brown and Hayes:
She never knew one of us from another, so my brothers and I grew up fighting
Over our mother’s mind
Like sun-colored suitors in a Greek myth. We were willing
To do evil. We kept chocolate around our mouths. The last of her mother’s lot,
She cried at funerals, cried when she whipped me. She whipped me
Daily. I am not interested in people who declare gratitude
For their childhood beatings. None of them took what my mother gave,
Waking us for school with sharp slaps to our bare thighs.
That side of the family is darker. I should be grateful. So I will be—
No one on Earth knows how many abortions happened
Before a woman risked her freedom by giving that risk a name,
By taking it to breast. I don’t know why I am alive now
That I still cannot impress the woman who whipped me
Into being. I turned my mother into a grandmother. She thanks me
By kissing my sons. Gratitude is black—
Black as a hero returning from war to a country that banked on his death.
Thank God. It can’t get much darker than that.
American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin
You know how when the light you splatter spreads
Across her back like wings tattooed elaborately one evening
In an ink-shop beside a river, how with the raw blood
Settling again into the meat you are you slump backwards
Half thinking it is more falling than slumping, more heartbreak
Than release & how maybe it’s the wings that are real
Or that will become real when you are dust, Money,
When you have slipped again into the black husk
That is not a black husk at all? That’s the feeling
Of her name in my mouth. It is like reaching a town
Bruised by headlights after too long in the darkness,
Like the feeling of one question flush against another,
The feeling of wings clasping the back of the body,
The feeling of wings clapping wind along the spine.