i. Center Ring
All months are cruel, ladies and gentlemen.
The lilacs that last in the dooryard bloomed are dead,
so come you here for pleasure and we shall entertain.
See us Negroes dance and sing, dance and sing
for you, dear audience, we will do most anything. 5
Our jungle bunnies dance the cooch
for nickel, dime, anytime.
Big George can lift a heifer on his shoulder,
sip a brew and shine your shoe, but barely breaks a sweat.
Oh, and Trickster, in the stands 10
will borrow money, steal your wallets
and pay you back in advance.
Dangling Daniel hangs from a noose,
bug-eyed but do not fear.
For just one more dollar you can make him holler 15
with the crack of a whip in your hand.
Step right up! Encourage the kids.
Out back, there’s a ninny parade.
Come one, come all; tell your friends!
This is the show that never ends… 20
Let’s take a minute to thank all those
that brought and keep us here.
Up in the box is Mr. Washington Adams Jefferson,
decorated general, statesman and agrarian.
Spotlight please! 25
And to his left, Abimbola, the great tracker,
tamer of African wilds.
To his right is Mr. Nagrom, financier extraordinaire.
An appreciative round of applause for him!
Now if everyone would rise to their feet 30
to thank the one, without whom
none of this would be possible:
Miss Lily White, in whose honor we perform.
Who talk like me? Who dye elect despise?
Who patois, out day home, invite guffaw 35
and swallow rage? Mask, except foe day eyes,
who talk like me? Who dye elect despise?
Just call me Tom, the tallyman.
I keeps de Negroes in check;
they won’t get far from me. 40
Enough of all this pomp; the circumstance is this:
with great big smiles and that old nigger shimmy,
we will give you laughs a-plenty.
But to begin this revelry,
we’ll try a little mystery: 45
Aunt Cahrie, decrepit sage of the veil
will take her place and fix herself to see
the future, mister and mistress.
Not for me, but you and he—she
needs no sinister deck to be 50
the oracle of the street made black.
Here comes your fortune in a whisper:
“I see a great metropolis, yet hell is underneath;
because its populace has sinned,
the black rat is bequeathed. 55
They tunnel through the underworld
and nest inside the walls,
they nibble on the limbs of babes,
heed not the piper’s call.
This plague, this pestilence you have? 60
You brought upon yourselves.
The lust it takes to own the world
is rooted deep and delves into abyss of hate—
that place you call your soul.
Your god is terribly displeased. 65
To expiate, and spare the rod,
live in the place where the black rat trod.
Become the rat itself.”
I’m afraid the old auntie’s tired now.
Fear the real city of the of the hag’s vision 70
some other time. You’re here to ease your guilt.
Neither bloody water, frogs, gnats, flies, diseased cattle,
boils, thunder and hail, locusts, darkness nor
the ghosts of dead sons will find you here.
Stay a while. 75
Gracious masters, you were not meant to fret.
There’re those of us, as you know, more adept
at bearing burdens not our own.
So let us dance and sing for you.
As long as we dance and sing 80
there is nothing to forgive.
Whenever past atrocities begin to furrow your brow,
say this mantra: mine is the peace of the world,
the salvation of all within. I am the soil and the sky,
the beasts and superior kin. This is day that I have made; 85
this is the path that I have laid; I am the hope of the world.
Forgive this rape, la sottise, l’erreur, le péché, la lésine.
Chipped brownstone stoops cradle the detritus of life.
She is one, lost in satiety, the bliss of oblivion,
harlot of the dope in her veins. 90
Behind her looms a hell
rich with the darkness of forgetting,
even in daylight, in view of children
taught to steer clear but never do, curious
about the freedom of barely clothed women 95
who do not work
and men with big cars
whose pockets are lined with money,
unlike their fathers—who do exist,
who conduct trains in the underworld, 100
who they never see,
who only see them when they are sleeping,
who know what they know about the world
but cannot protect them, who cannot rid their lives
of women like her, seen on the street everyday, 105
on the way to school, on the way home,
a face more familiar than their mother’s,
with a name they remember
and include in rhyme.
She has asked them for a dollar before, 110
in the bodega next door to the house
on which stoop she sits,
its particleboard windows
keeping her shame
from the sight of passersby. 115
Inside, she is the plaything of Satan’s doppelgangers,
the ball in a game of jacks, a hole-in-one,
her breasts like dice, her body
a crumpled lottery ticket
arching toward a nice shot. 120
Stumbling to the rhythm of no music, she laughs,
drools, knowing that at the end of this dance
she will be offered the favor she desires most,
the luster on her tongue,
the calm of fantastic stupor 125
in a corner, on a corner, cornered.
In such a state, she dreams
of ridiculous wealth by a pool, in a fur coat,
but wakes on a pile of dead rats,
phlegmatic, too gone to go. 130
She’s hungry and can hear an ice cream truck
outside, makes for the door, makes for the curb
where the ice cream truck is, does not have a dollar.
You wanna taste my sweet sugar nasty, little boy?
You buy me a vanilla cone and you can have a taste. 135
You wanna little of this sugar nasty?
You buy me a ice cream cone, with sprinkles.
I bet you ain never had no sugar nasty.
How old you is? You bout old as my little boy.
Hey don’t you want some this here here, 140
make a little man outta you, little boy?
Get me a ice cream cone, with sprinkles.
Say, little boy? You hear me talkin to you.
You wanna a little of this sugar nasty?
Yeah, says a little boy, not so little as he is young, 145
sharp, aware of this house
he has passed each day of his life,
who knows this woman,
like everyone knows this woman,
as Adam knew Eve because he had no other choice. 150
He strikes a deal. Yeah—and what about my friend?
What you gone give him if he buy you a ice cream?
The friend smiles; it’s funny.
They’ve bought her before, for less
but she doesn’t remember; her kidneys lust 155
for the saccharine delight, which she will forget
in an instant. Yeah, what I get? Freaky? Freaky?
The people on the street watch this barter;
the adults comply.
Other children learn this madness, 160
cultivate it, come home late,
tell their mothers they were at play.
The mothers never ask at what? with whom?
She smiles and sugar nasty fails at seduction.
The boys have no idea what it is 165
and will never have to know
because it’s the everyday alchemy,
the things that stuff will make women do
—of which they’ve heard their grandmothers,
surrogate mothers, aunts, the ladies at the bus stop speak. 170
But they know what a woman’s insides feel like,
buy two ice cream cones with sprinkles
and follow her double-fisted, backward lure
into the condemned house of tricks and trade,
into her moribund world of creaky stairs, 175
sparse slivers of light,
bedless bedrooms and lecherous walls.
Here, the cat is always away.
Little boys like mystery;
they master the magic of curiosity 180
and wield it through what they discover:
orgy of vermin; sharp objects in the dark;
sounds they’ve heard coming
from their mother’s bedroom
or muted on after-hours television; 185
the smell of burning sugar;
the flash of gold teeth in the unknown;
gum on the floor and webs on the brow.
She keeps the promise of her sweet sugar nasty in the air 190
and the little boys’ tummies begin to quiver;
they are fighting
the wrong-it’s wrong-you know it’s wrong feeling
(but will feel better afterwards, like conquerors,
like little men with mannish ways, 195
deserving of a pat on the shoulder, a smile from Dad
when, years from now, they tell the story),
the usual before one bares his sex.
She finds an empty niche, finishes what’s left
of her payment and takes off her clothes. 200
Numb and spread-eagle on the floor, she invites
the boys with a sticky finger, one at a time,
into to an unkempt and musky void.
They sink into her clutches, tighter than vise-grips, 205
with a clumsy start, all nerves and erection.
The pit is addictive and overwhelms, coaxes their spirits
from the inside out. Once entered, they can never leave,
the foolish prey of a monster.
iii. Outside, the Prophet
[for Amiri Baraka]
…woe unto you illusionseekers 210 the milk from the breast of the benevolent stepmother is tainted with illusions refuse hold your breath, brethren remember on route to the land 215 of milk and honey is the desert and the milk is an illusion and the honey is funnyhoney acidhoney tripyououthoney the desert is where you want to be 220 stayway from the water remember where the water brought you be rabid in the endless water swallow and die the illusions make you dance 225 slide dip shake boogaloo shangalang aint no thang but a chaingang elude the illusions the illusions want more and then some 230 the illusions want work (with no sass) and entertainment why you think you dancin? you on a partyride it’s shock therapy 235 which causes dehydration which causes want of water why you think you dancing (stayway from the water) to a worthless thing? the illusions are worthless 240 and you who follow illusion become worthless how empty your worship in a godmade world with your handmade apocalypse and its denigrated singing 245 you have been given poisoned water to drink and the thirst is an illusion makes you dance the spectators are impatient for popcorn (for its salt for your weight in salt) as they watch the show that never ends 250 and become thirsty and drink the water and become corrupted by their own illusions heed dancers and singers in the machine stop and listen to the noise subside and don’t be surprised that you made the noise 255 or that the spectators are quiet gone mute long ago you crush the hearts and shake the bones of your prophets and do not hear become a menace to your enemies cease praying to the gone 260 you have the proof you are the proof why you think you dancin? can’t you feel it? onetwostep the exhaustion? onetwostep they love it when you onetwostep 265 why do you think you’re dancing? the weaker, the more you feel it the slipshod guilt of a gyrating stripper blind to redemption a clutch of dollar bills in hand 270 there is remedy a dose to pry you free from sanity the marvelous trick of illusion stop dancing stop singing horde the (giving it up) treasure 275 you have forsaken your house and abandoned your heritage and given up your heart to its enemies your eyes are false diluted your colors fade 280 you have become fat mimicries slaves to the audience a partyallthetime madness bloated beyond belief flee the Big Top come into the sun and be still 285 baptize in the light be still sweat let it seep out you or have it beat out you kill the honkey’s monkey or eternity awaits you 290 in the Disco Inferno you are weary from holding it in take off your clothes run naked let it all hang loose if you feeling afflicted these lords love a sinner 295 shake what ya massa gave you shake it loose wrest yourselves from it it’s not yours it never was just part of the contract part of the deed 300 became your creed you have the proof you are the proof cease praying to the gone become a menace to your enemies stop the show for none will bemoan you 305 your yoke tossed off and sinking in time no buoy for those giddy and drowning in the water stayway from the water remember where the water brought you swallow and die 310 the hour has already scattered here in the unreal city heed dancers and singers in the machine you are its industry crumble! flee the Big Top 315
iv. Death of the Crackhead Vendor
Roany? That junkie’s selling popcorn?
Moonlighting, must be. No more cheap smokes.
No more six of anything you need for five dollars!
The shop won’t be the same without that Negro interrupting my haircut.
Poor Miss Deb somewhere drunk with grief. 320
With him, everything was for sale.
He was down on Front Street one time with his dick hanging out.
He ain’t never had good sense, though wasn’t his fault.
I knew for sure he was dead—in that alley, stone cold
as a black marble statue, sitting on a brand new A/C unit. 325
v. Striking the Tents
Cartwheels and hallellujahs festoon the heat.
Underneath a white tarpaulin: holiness
in all its unholy rejoicing.
What once sheltered a boy’s laughter
comes down, 330
comes down on the heads of a people,
comes down on our heads and few notice.
The poles, the ropes, sink into the ground.
Pressed against the tarp there is no sound
but The Spirit makes the bodies writhe. 335
The old mothers offer their dwindling soprano,
a precious utterance that summons The Savior—
the only sound that summons these days, last days.
The old mothers know the end of days.
They sweat a passion in their white dresses 340
and kerchiefs, pray for strength and necessary talk.
Satan, get thee behind me!
Who says from the pulpit, I LOVE THE NAME!,
but stretches out a hand to signal hats, chargers
and velvet bags with wooden handles? 345
He getting ready to come down, you hear me?
He getting ready preach!
He getting ready to sully all that Italian silk,
while we fan the flies in this cotton (we done picked) field.
What once sheltered a boy’s curiosity
comes down in wails of fever pitch, 355
comes down in the grin of an ungodly charlatan
and few notice.
SOME MAN, SOME WOMAN,
SOME BOY, SOME GIRL?
More people or less room? 360
“Go on, baby, and receive
the right hand of fellowship.”
Down by the river, under which I was put,
by my own accord, I asked in prayer,
in my silent time, in fear I asked. 365
The book read: after the water there is only life.
So, when I was bad, when it was a secret,
when I knew it was no mistake,
when I saw the blood moon
and crawled under the bed, 370
away from the avenging angels,
away from the blast of the horn,
before the earth shook and closed my eyes,
I asked for the water, asked to be taken,
to be put under, so far under, under death, 375
under sin, under the world of nights,
asked for the water and not the shadow dance
of the men behind the shades.
After the water was light.
After the light, there was clarity in waves. 380
After clarity, death remained and decision.
“Go on and receive the right hand of fellowship.”
Let them sing a little more about Yonder, 385
about the Upper Room, about glory.
I am not ready to step from the pews,
to make my way up the aisle,
in the eyes of the on-lookers.
I have been down by the river and was taken 390
by the water. “Accept his hand and see his face.”
Then what would you do? I’d need no other guide.
The fellowship offered is not clarity.
A body still clings to the polymeric cross,
bound by neon lights 395
but this body, the dark meat of God’s great chicken,
awaits the good news, the gospel of bread and butter.
One by one, the congregants proclaim
themselves sinners by leaping into the air.
Cleanse me, Lord! They join the waiting 400
to be touched by the revivalist, to feel
the charisma move through him as he grasps
neck and brow, holding their head—
a crystal ball in a clairvoyant’s hands.
HEALING! HEALING! 405
His gratitude for whatever private anguish
has brought our people low.
If I pray the kingdom down to here and now,
the Lord will reveal me.
HEALING! HEALING! 410
I ASK FOR A HEALING MIRACLE
NOW! THAT SHE BE HEALED
FROM THE CROWN OF HER HEAD
TO THE SOLES OF HER FEET.
BE HEALED! BE MADE WHOLE! 415
PEOPLE RAISE YOUR HANDS!
GET YOUR HEALING RIGHT NOW!
A strange and glorious feeling came over my body.
This is how it ends,
in sudorific showmanship, 420
the noise of tamborines
and speaking in tounges,
ushers and nurses, of the church,
choreographed to catch the fainting,
the fallen, whipped into perfect distraction 425
by the matchless name of Jesus,
as tithes and offerings are loaded
into the trunk of a car
and the old mothers, BLESS THEIR SOULS,
rake out our sustenance 430
into aluminum garbage cans.
Amen. Selah! Amen.
Dante Micheaux is the author of Amorous Shepherd (Sheep Meadow Press, 2010). His poems and translations have appeared in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Callaloo, PN Review, The African American Review, and Tongue, among other journals and anthologies. He has been shortlisted for the Benjamin Zephaniah Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize. Micheaux’s honors include a prize in poetry from the Vera List Center for Art & Politics, the Oscar Wilde Award, and fellowships from Cave Canem Foundation and The New York Times Foundation.
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