Poetry | September 01, 2001

Featuring the poems

  • Before My History Classes
  • In His Library
  • Vo-Tech
  • From Someplace
  • How Quickly He Went
  • Lament


Before My History Classes

Grandpa was coming to visit that night,

and my sister wore blue jeans and a blouse.

In pajamas, I wanted to be old

so I could stay up with her to meet him.


I had religion on my mind and knew

what questions would stall Mother when she came

to tuck the little-girl sheets around me.

I tricked her into talking about Christ,

the Bible, asked what Heaven held in store.


Why should I sleep? I told her, When I die,

I want to meet all the dead. They’ll be dressed

and acting just like they did when they lived.


She snapped my sheet, a warning, kissed my head:

Someday you’ll be more careful what you wish.


In His Library

Grandpa’s wife lived in Springfield (where mobs killed

two black men to remind themselves they could),

and, I suppose, she gave him all those books

about The Great Emancipator’s life,

but I knew nothing of that in those days.


The best book proved villains could be vanquished,

and photos lent support. Conspirators

of John Wilkes Booth dangled, their hooded heads

all the evidence I needed. My folks

bored me, so I read while they asked Grandpa

if he would move back to Alabama.


Why? What good has that place ever done me?

At six, what did I know about anger?

How could I know, then, what I was learning?



Everything we wore that needed rescue,

pants we’d torn and shirts with ripped-off buttons,

went to Grandpa’s house. When we visited,

we modeled. Grandpa adjusted our clothes

with stick pins. Almost weekly, he saved us,

my sister and me, restoring the clothes

we’d lately damaged. You should teach the girls

how this is done, Mother once suggested,

her arms delivery mending, her eyes

collecting Grandpa’s hands, the snapped-tight box

that housed his machine, his needles. He ripped

her words as he told us never to do

with a hanging thread. Let them save their time.

He took the clothes. Let them do useful things.


From Someplace

Dreams are sometimes livable, provided

there is property enough, and each house

in Buxton had a little plot of land.

Every worker had to have a garden,

and black folks grew theirs right among the whites’.

Buxton Industries mined coal, fueled the turn

of another century. That far back,

and still, a Negro could make a life there,

and Great-grandfather, the village’s best

blacksmith, did. So it’s no shock, Grandmother,

that, in Springfield, you moved your boys

into the white district, wouldn’t let them swim

in that old mud hole called the colored pool.


How Quickly He Went

He was a man who walked beside failure

but had gone on living. At eighty-five,

he might have lived another twenty years

if he could hope the wife who pulled away

to stay on that platform back in Springfield

might change her mind. It was his desire

for her that had staked him fifty years. Love

was one slim woman with a nursing job

in Illinois. Life was a business,

a Gary tailor shop he could not sell.

And so his chance with her had gone. She died

in August. Before January slung

its shivers on the wind, he had stopped breathing.

What was the use of holding some body?



Those black men flew out of Tuskegee armed

with skills, and that diploma supervised

his store. Now there’s nothing but the mirror

in our basement and an oak spool-holder,

a plaque of thread my mother still consults

when she mends a hem. My father’s father

is a photo I barely recognize.

He lives in my uncle’s face. He reaches

for me with my father’s hands, but he died

before I knew anything about him

but cast-off things, died before I could write

a story for him about anything

but loss. What do I know if I don’t know

what it is that would have made him a man?


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