Requiem

Poem for a Tuesday — “Requiem” by Kwame Dawes

“I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
mercantilistic madness.

We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,

so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants

may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those

devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp

I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.

Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.

If we don’t, who will
recall in requiem
the scattering of my tribe?

In every reggae chant
stepping proud against Babylon
I hear a blue note

of lament, sweet requiem
for the countless dead,
skanking feet among shell,

coral, rainbow adze,
webbed feet, making as if

to lift, soar, fly into new days.”

from Requiem by Kwame Dawes, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1996.


Poet, professor, and Pulitzer Prize winner Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica. Dawes’s work in reporting on the HIV AIDS crisis in Haiti after the earthquake for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting won the National Press Club Joan Friedenberg Award for Online Journalism. He says that his spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music is a central influence in his poetry. He is a foremost scholar of the work of Bob Marley. Dawes is the Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.


Photo by Blaque X on Pexels.com

Passage

Poem for a Tuesday — “Passage” by Elizabeth Alexander

“Henry Porter wore good clothes for his journey,

the best his wife could make from leftover

cambric, shoes stolen from the master. They

bit his feet, but if he took them off he feared

he’d never get them on again. He needed

to look like a free man when he got there.

Still in a box in the jostling heat,

nostrils to a board pried to a vent,

(a peephole, too, he’d hoped, but there was only

black to see) there was nothing to do

but sleep and dream and weep. Sometime the dreams

were frantic, frantic loneliness an acid

in his heart. Freedom was near but un-

imaginable. Anxiety roiled inside

of him, a brew which corroded his stomach,

whose fumes clamped his lungs and his throat.

When the salt-pork and corn bread were finished

he dreamed of ice cream and eggs but the dreams

made him sick.  He soiled himself and each time

was ashamed.  He invented games tried to

remember everything his mother

ever told, every word he hadn’t

understood, every vegetable he’d ever

eaten (which was easy: kale, okra, corn,

carrots, beans, chard, yams, dandelion greens),

remember everyone’s name who had ever

been taken away.  The journey went that way.

When he got there, his suit was chalky

with his salt, and soiled, the shoes waxy with blood.

The air smelled of a surfeit of mackerel.

Too tired to weep, too tired to look through

the peephole and see what freedom looked like,

he waited for the man to whom he’d shipped

himself: Mister William Still, Undertaker,

Philadelphia.  He repeated the last

words he’d spoken to anyone: goodbye

wife Clothilde, daughter Eliza,

 best friend Luke.  Goodbye, everyone, goodbye.

When I can, I’ll come for you. I swear,

I’ll come for you.”

in Furious Flower, ed. Joanne V. Gabbin. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.


Elizabeth Alexander is a Black writer, poet, and educator. Born in Harlem and raised in Washington, DC, Alexander studied at Yale, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She is a gifted educator, who has taught at Haverford College, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College. Her father served as the United States Secretary of the Army. Her mother was a distinguished professor of African American Women’s History. She was just a toddler when her parents took to the March on Washington in August 1963. In 2009, she recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barack Obama’s first Presidential Inauguration.


Facing It

Poem for a Tuesday — “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa

“My black face fades,   

hiding inside the black granite.   

I said I wouldn’t  

dammit: No tears.   

I’m stone. I’m flesh.   

My clouded reflection eyes me   

like a bird of prey, the profile of night   

slanted against morning. I turn   

this way—the stone lets me go.   

I turn that way—I’m inside   

the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

again, depending on the light   

to make a difference.   

I go down the 58,022 names,   

half-expecting to find   

my own in letters like smoke.   

I touch the name Andrew Johnson;   

I see the booby trap’s white flash.   

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse   

but when she walks away   

the names stay on the wall.   

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s   

wings cutting across my stare.   

The sky. A plane in the sky.   

A white vet’s image floats   

closer to me, then his pale eyes   

look through mine. I’m a window.   

He’s lost his right arm   

inside the stone. In the black mirror   

a woman’s trying to erase names:   

No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.”

in Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)


Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He served as a war correspondent and managing editor of the Southern Cross during the Vietnam war, earning him a Bronze Star. His poetry reflects the cadences and influence of jazz and his grandparents, who were church people: “the sound of the Old Testament informed the cadences of their speech.” He takes on complex moral issues: the Vietnam War, his experience as a black man, and the underside of life in America. He lives in New York City where he is Distinguished Senior Poet in NYU’s graduate creative writing program.


Vietnam War Memorial — Washington, DC

The Enactment

Poem for a Tuesday — “The Enactment” by Rita Dove

“I’m just a girl who people were mean to on a bus. . . . I could have been anybody.” — Mary Ware, nee Smith

“Can’t use no teenager, especially

no poor black trash,
no matter what her parents do

to keep up a living. Can’t use

anyone without sense enough

to bite their tongue.

It’s gotta be a woman,

someone of standing:

peferably shy, preferably married.

And she’s got to know

when the moment’s right.

Stay polite, though her shoulder’s

aching, bus driver

the same one threw her off

twelve years before.

Then all she’s got to do is

sit there, quiet, till

the next moment finds her—and only then

can she open her mouth to ask

Why do you push us around?

and his answer: I don’t know but

the law is the law and you

are under arrest.

She must sit there, and not smile

as they enter to cary her off;she must know who to call

who will know whom else to call

to bail her out . . . and only then

can she stand up and exhale

can she walk out the cell

and down the jail steps

into flashbulbs and

her employer’s white

arms—and go home,

and sit down in the seat

we have prepared for her.”

in Furious Flower, ed. Joanne V. Gabbin. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.


Poet and Professor Rita Dove grew up in Akron, Ohio. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Tubingen, Germany, before joining the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her third book, Thomas and Beulah, based on her grandparents’ lives, won the Pulitzer Prize. She became the American Poet Laureate in 1993, making her both the youngest recipient of this honor and the first African American. Her poetry has a unique musicality, grounded in her own musicianship and personal belief that “language sings.” She is an avid ballroom dancer and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she has taught since 1989.


By Unknown author – USIA / National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency Record Group 306, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4344206