Poem of the Week | October 28, 2019

Aaron Coleman is the author of Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018) and the chapbook, St. Trigger, selected by Adrian Matejka for the 2015 Button Poetry Prize. A Fulbright Scholar and Cave Canem Fellow, Aaron is the winner of the American Literary Translators Association’s Jansen Fellowship, the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Contest, and The Cincinnati Review Schiff Award. His poems have appeared in journals including Boston Review, Callaloo, and New York Times Magazine. After completing an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, Aaron is currently there as a PhD student in Comparative Literature studying poetry translation of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

 

Negro Reverend of an All-White Church, Pennsylvania 1941

 

For my Great Grandfather

Rotten eggs and overripe tomatoes fly
as they turn over in the air, passing
through the broad and open door I built
myself, however many years ago. I watch no longer

immigrant, new white children dart in and hurl their trash and words
mid-sermon: spook and nigger and spoiled food tumble in long arcs,
land in the lone aisle of the church I cut, nailed, and raised
with my hard-stretched hands, ever-gentle with the flesh of wood—

Somewhere inside I smile, wildly, remembering
how the Spirit moved their fair-skinned neighbors
to ask of me this tabernacle
and I obliged. I have obliged so much so long—I learn

to risk belief. I bid my voice rise just as the foul mess splatters
all over His floor, to cover up the sound, to hold
the concentration of my white faithful
looping wounded language into new tongues:

this fervor we call grace – cry holy – their eyes riding my eyes,
my periphery on their periphery. Lord, help me
be what they need
me to be – help me, in my love for You, not to forget

what is eternal of myself. And family. My children of both wives, the Susquehanna
that claimed the burning lungs of my first love. I do not know

what will become of us. Of my many-skinned children. The end of days
seeps past the doorframe with hate lobbed from small hands, but a flood
of gospel-sweat and prayerful tears forces my eyes up

into the rafters I aligned for You, and them…
There may be no place for me in this river valley—
in this world, I lift You up. And call You Home.

 

Author’s Note

I’m becoming more and more interested in the intersections of family history and family legends. I’m both stunned and galvanized by the generations of my family that migrated from towns in the deep south and, on one side, from Pennsylvania to chase opportunities in Detroit. I recently spent time in one of my family’s ancestral towns, where my grandfather grew up in rural Pennsylvania and many of my cousins still live. My family was the rare black family in that area, and yet my great grandfather was called, one way or another, to build a church in and for that same town. Returning now as an adult, some of my oldest family members shared stories with me that I’d never heard before about the challenges of raising that church in that town. We even visited the site of the one-room church my great grandfather built and pastored. Overcome with the complexity of his story, both in that space and how it led to the making of my body, I felt called, one way or another, to write this persona poem in his voice. I’m still nervous about it. And yet, writing poems that explore the making of my family and shed light on little-known black American histories feels essential to the lessons I’m learning now about where I’ve come from and who I am.

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