Sorrow Song

Poem for a Tuesday — “Sorrow Song” by Lucille Clifton

for the eyes of the children,
the last to melt,
the last to vaporize,
for the lingering
eyes of the children, staring,
the eyes of the children of
of viet nam and johannesburg,
for the eyes of the children
of nagasaki,
for the eyes of the children
of middle passage,
for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes,
russian eyes, american eyes,
for all that remains of the children,
their eyes,
staring at us, amazed to see
the extraordinary evil in
ordinary men.

in Blessing the Boats, Rochester: BOA Editions, 2000, p. 39.

Lucille Clifton grew up in Buffalo, before attending Howard University and SUNY Fredonia. Her spare poems capture human experience in deeply revelatory ways, with hopeful focus on the enduring strength of the African American experience and family life. She wrote ten books of poetry and seventeen books for children, racking up a number of honors and awards, including the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats. Clifton was the Maryland Poet Laureate from 1974-1985 and served as the Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College in Columbia, Maryland. Asked once how she wished to be remembered, Clifton said, “I would like to be seen as a woman whose roots go back to Africa, who tried to honor being human. My inclination is to try to help.”

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Nat Turner in the Clearing

Poem for a Tuesday — “Nat Tuner in the Clearing” by Alvin Aubert

Ashes, Lord–

But warm still from the fire that cheered us,
Lighted us in this clearing where it seems
Scarcely an hour ago we feasted on
Burnt pig from our tormentors’ unwilling
Bounty and charted the high purpose your
Word had launched us on, And now, my comrades
Dead, or taken; your servant, pressed by the
Bloody yelps of hounds, forsaken, save for
The stillness of the word that persists quivering
And breath-moist on his tongue; and these faint coals
Soon to be rushed to dying glow by the
Indifferent winds of miscarriage-What now,
My Lord? A priestess once, they say, could write
On leaves, unlock the time-bound spell of deeds
Undone. I let fall upon these pale remains
Your breath-moist word, preempt the winds, and give
Them now their one last glow, that some dark child
In time to come might pass this way and, in
This clearing, read and know….

In Furious Flower. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004, p. 46.

Alvin Aubert was a scholar, poet, and editor, shaped by the African American culture and rural life of his childhood along the Mississippi River. He left school early to work, joined the Army, and earned his GED. After his service, Aubert returned to school, earning a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan, where he was a Woodrow Wilson National Fellow. His writing was strongly influenced by the blues tradition. In addition to his six books of poetry, Aubert was a gifted educator. He taught at Southern University, SUNY Fredonia, and Wayne State University. He founded and edited the award-winning journal Obsidian, noted for publishing works in English by writers of African descent worldwide. “Nat Turner in the Clearing,” written about the 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, was Aubert’s first published poem. On a hot summer day in his office at Southern University, Aubert had just finished reading “The Confession of Nat Turner” when he felt the presence of Turner there in the room with him. He picked up the pen and began to write, casting the poem in the form of a prayer.

Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street

Poem for a Tuesday — “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street” by Ross Gay

Maybe, since you’re something like me,
you, too, would’ve nearly driven into oncoming traffic
for gawking at the clutch between the two men
on Broad Street, in front of the hospital,
which would not stop, each man’s face
so deeply buried in the other’s neck—these men
not, my guess, to be fucked with—squeezing through
that first, porous layer of the body into the heat beneath;
maybe you, too, would’ve nearly driven over three pedestrians

          as your head
swiveled to lock on their lock,
their burly fingers squeezing the air from the angels
on the backs of their denim jackets
which reminds you the million and one secrets exchanged
in nearly the last clasp between your father
and his brother, during which the hospital’s chatter and rattle
somehow fell silent in deference to the untranslatable
song between them, and just as that clasp endured through
what felt like the gradual lengthening of shadows and the emergence
of once cocooned things, and continues to this day, so, too,
did I float unaware of the 3000 lb machine
in my hands drifting through a stop light while I gawked
at their ceaseless cleave going deeper,
and deeper still, so that Broad Street from Fairmount
to the Parkway reeked of the honey-scented wind
pushed from the hummingbirds now hovering above these two men,
sweetening, somehow, the air until nectar,
yes, nectar gathered at the corners of my mouth

           like sun-colored spittle,
the steel vehicle now a lost memory
as I joined the fire-breasted birds in listening
to air exchanged between these two men, who are, themselves,
listening, forever, to the muscled contours of the other’s neck, all of us
still, and listening, as if we had nothing
to blow up, as if we had nothing to kill.

in The American Poetry Review, vol. 35, no. 5. Accessed online at

Ross Gay

Poet, professor, and essayist Ross Gay is all about joy. His four books of poetry include Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays – The Book of Delights – was a New York Times bestseller. His current work Inciting Joy is a Publisher’s Weekly best book of 2022. Editor John Freeman says Ross’s work, “throws off so much light, I’ve often wondered if it was powered by a superior energy source.” Ross Gay teaches at Indiana University, where he gives out lots of “A” grades and invites students to wonder with him.

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Cathedral Kitsch

for Black History Month, I’ll be featuring the work of some of my favorite African American poets. We begin with the sublime

Tracy K. Smith

Does God love gold?

Does He shine back

At Himself from walls

Like these, leafed

In the earth’s softest wealth?

Women light candles,

Pray into their fistful of beads.

Cameras spit human light

Into the vast holy dark,

And what glistens back

Is high up and cold. I feel

Man here. The same wish

That named the planets.

Man with his shoes and tools,

His insistence to prove we exist

Just like God, in the large

And the small, the great

And the frayed. In the chords

That rise from the tall brass pipes,

And the chorus of crushed cans

Someone drags over cobbles

In the secular street.

from Life on Mars, Minneapolis: Grey Wolf Press, 2011

Tracy K. Smith

is an American author, poet, and educator. She grew up in Northern California, where she began writing poetry at an early age, encouraged by her mother, a teacher, and her father, an aerospace engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. After completing an MFA at Columbia University, Tracy was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. She teaches at Princeton, where she chairs the Lewis Center for the Arts. She has written four volumes of poetry, including Life on Mars, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Her book Ordinary Light: A Memoir, about race, faith, and the dawning of her poetic vocation, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015. Elizabeth Alexander has written of Tracy Smith, “Her poems are mysterious but utterly lucid and write a history that is sub-rosa yet fully within her vision. They are deeply satisfying and necessarily inconclusive. And they are pristinely beautiful without ever being precious.” Tracy Smith is currently writing two operas.

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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.

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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,