for Bill Kelly
he knows with pipe slanted
out of his mouth, sweet tobacco
and maybe too much cologne.
the school’s only black man
fit in a Frame at fifty-five
from Alabama singing religion
deep south yam, fried food,
the church small at the end
the road in the middle of a field.
from the front door you see cotton
and the grave where the grandparents
lie still in the ground. some storms
come in make sky grows so dark
you swear the devil controls the world,
lightning flash and thunder come forever
split second. split the sky. son of
black gospel work with white men
all day, sing secrets, sun go down
a tiny piece of meat at home night
with his wife of forty years. gray
stubble on his chin for roughness
in men that shows, to get rest, the rest
he has hidden center strong standing
behind a plow dirt tough leaning in
chanting the mule like he’s a demon
like he’s a man on the payroll who want
money with just a little bit of work
give up something now. do not promise.
just do it. he wants the day to die
so that something else might be born.
it is work. it is prayer. it is the callouses
in his hand. it is education. it is lying
to yourself about how certain labor is. it is
where the country becomes a brown patch
of destiny, knowing what the men will
with their tongues is as important as God.
fear not says the great Book wrapped in sack
cloth underneath the cabinet where the phonograph
sits in the front room of the old house.
what religion is there for a man who cannot read?
ancestors know with their long Wiry Frames,
women at sixty who outwork most men. they stand
in the mind a choir singing their religion silently
with their eyes and bodies still. tonight is Friday
which means Saturday's work is light.
and that’s the best rest, tomorrow will be half
today’s work, the best you can wish for.
that’s why he learned to read and teach and make
a song of learning. that’s why he left. that’s why
his name died, but he came back to find it, mixed
with soot, rust, and the long sway the choir do when
they send somebody home. he knows one day
it will be him. tonight, maybe, a piece of sweet
potato pie, or something baked with sugar. Friday
to walk slow into the back room and make love,
the way they did young almost still kids. love
in front of the house, last time he left they stood
there waiting, wanting, watching, with secret desire.
he could feel their knowing, could see it in their bodies
the thin wiry frames, the foreheads round, the odd arc
the shoulders, the strong back and shining silence,
and he thought they know every rhythm in the world.
they do it constant without indulgence. yes, press.
this is what heaven looks like
behold the air has its wisdom.
another sun out of the sky, bout to go down, simple
weight, another, yes, against the joy of being alive
together now in a tight space, almost just right
breaking, breaking, like time is gone, another daylight.
In Africa, when an old man dies, it's a library burning
Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish
and feed him for a lifetime Common Proverb
fall into the lake's mist.
this September, cool
the air over and under
a silver line
attached to a weight,
and a hook, into water,
to find the bottom,
rest there a minute,
not far from here
my father on the edge
above the plane
of the water, looking
down, and looking out,
on a bank where earth
shows its guts, roots
of trees and the deep
dark tone of what lies
singing silence: fake
worms, lures, hands
arching to fingertips
moving in early light.
did he know the November
he died: his tackle box,
his denim overalls, the
small spray can-catfish
bait, the smell of dried
spam, rotting, preserved,
the shriveled worm pasted
to a rusted hook? did he
understand the great metaphors
when he taught me art
of watching water, of
pulling out the tangles
in a line, of singing want
with it's subtle distinctions?
when he taught me waiting
he did not wait. he did not
teach. messy man with dirt
caked into the ovals
of his nails, blood and guts
smeared across his waist
cigarettes dangling out
of his mouth, smoke rising,
killing and dying, raising
his voice without patience.
tone I took as hate,
then I was afraid,
the ghost of his eyes
thunder and impatience
over tiny things, watching
a rod, a line bending, throwing
rocks into the water, not
paying attention. did
he know of the burned
did he know himself
as the sages proscribed,
man with a bamboo rod
walking into the tall plants
trying to find a good spot?
if man is a symbol my father
is a penny, brown, copper,
he is use, used and useless.
did he know that writing
is not moment, dusk is not
really black, human is not flesh,
that we are really impossible
and believe in less? I banned
his books- in grief, my God,
i've forgotten those mornings
like nights, those nights like mornings.
"banned books" was originally published in Crab Orchard Review in Vol. 20 No. 1 W/S 2015
"banned books" is also the first poem in Bro. Yao's collection Inheritance- you can e-mail him at [email protected] to obtain a copy