A Majority of One from Issue 95
I am the only passenger on the top deck of the double-decker at a time of day
when London’s buses can be sanctuaries—assuming skinheads in their steel-toed
bovver boots don’t mount the narrow winding staircase at the back of the bus
and discover me here on the top deck in the Rosa-Parks front seat—coloured, female, alone.
The 137 bus rocks through London, its high center of gravity a liability.
As a child, I’d been a passenger on a bus when it slammed into a motorcyclist.
At the moment of impact, the bus shuddered and snorted like a bull.
The man had spun out from smoking tires to land far away,
as if he’d been swept out by an asphalt tide, his pale, bald, unscathed head
as puzzling to my child eyes as his stillness—his face slammed into the pavement,
his khaki-colored, Inspector-Clouseau mackintosh puddling around him like an epilogue.
But that was then and this was now the seventies. Black is looking in the mirror;
Black is combing its hair with a pick. You’re grown, ensconced on the top deck,
sitting at the front in the Rosa-Parks seat. Below you, through the grimy windows
as you ride southwards across the River Thames, the city lurches from privilege to want.
You’re reading English with the pedigreed at King’s College, London; you’re a veteran
of Topshop’s clearance sales; you wet your hair to make your biracial Afro
stand to attention. Risky to let your hair be your hair—a disavowal
of the white majority, a graphic dialect. But your hair belongs to you
so you do it anyway. You glance down at the dirty cream-colored panel
beneath the grimy window where an Englishman has used his pen as a sword,
gouging seven wounds into the skin of the bus: All niggers should be gassed at birth.
You know the author means it; you know the author means you.
You know you are a disquieting metaphor, a fusion of un-likes.
You know geography can be a tyrant, prejudice a war monger.
You know the cage isn’t where the Black bird sings, it’s how she dies.
You know you will leave this overcrowded island with its pessimistic sky.
You know it may not make a difference—the sky is ubiquitous and unreliable.
You know you love your white widowed mother as much as you love your dead black father.
You know Shakespeare and Dunbar, Bronte and Hughes.
You know that the double-barreled g in Nigger is a shotgun.
You know this, too: You are here on the top deck—un-gassed and well read.
You understand that masks have a tendency to suffocate their wearers.
You dismount, careful not to trip as you descend the winding stair.
You step off the platform in your red high heels.
You are not a child—after an assault like this, you’ve learned not to sob or scream.
You walk down the High Road toward home, wearing your small brown face like a native.
American Angelus: An Immigrant’s Ode Issue 90
More than a decade into a new millennium, I am lying
in bed with you, America, as you grumble about the pea
under the mattress. What can I say? you tell me,
You know I’ve always been sensitive. And this one’s so green.
You pose on your queen-sized bed, adjust your sunburst tiara,
flutter your long-as-a-sermon eyelashes.
Sunlight streams through the hole we punched in the ceiling
to gaze at the parchment moon after one too many single malts.
Time honks his horn like a horny homeboy. We ignore the old fart.
We’re insider trading under our Martha Stewart sheets
in the whirl of a tense present, whipping up sex into cupcakes.
My love is as lusty as Margaret’s Scarlett, as reticent as
Hawthorne’s Hester, as precocious as Shirley’s temple.
All ringlets and apple pie, my idol demands second helpings,
lives (on and off) by a creed written by wise men who wrote Liberty
on tall paper before the South could read.
Over breakfast, you remind me of the politics of compromise.
“When politics screws ideology, morality becomes a condiment,” I point out.
We’re all going to hell in a handbasket, hon, you say.
Shut up and pass the salt.
I place my Negro-colored-Black-Afro-Caribbean-African-American-without-
the-hyphen-Biracial-immigrant hand inside yours, America,
which is more coppery green than white and slippery as an idea.
I swim around inside your palm, a little brown fish. My mulatto,
you croon, not meaning to offend, my little brown pea. Your peals
of laughter rise like prayer-bubbles, tolling for us both.
Every morning it’s the same aubade—you reciting your riddle-creed:
Every day is garbage day. We must trash
what we need, keep the rest. Everyone collects something
they yearn to throw away. How else could God have been invented?
In fact (you rub your pea-green eyes) the space-time matrix
is an unreliable narrator. The future rushes by us
out of breath and crabby in her high heels—Lady Gaga on speed.
We march onwards down the little Lady’s birth canal.
You have eyes wide enough to see through a punched-out sky-
light into other galaxies, a mind large enough to sieve parallel universes
from the detritus. And I love to suckle at your colossal breasts,
my Whitmanic, incomparable, arrogant, crass, idiot-savant angel,
my electric-alchemic Muse, my land of the found and the ready
to be ready-made, my totemic untenable circumference.
Beloved America, pinup girl and queen—
my triple Hail Mary, my lover, my dream….
II: High Noon
Directly above us the din of midday
Shit-scared and disgruntled I gaze through the skylight
You are still snoring you’re older now, weepy
your Seagram’s beside you your summer read lusty
Hope-hoarding and hapless a gullible dreamer
Called to prayer-song but distracted by pixels
Screens soon enchant you seductive and simple
Soap-opera starlets hunks strapping and bland-faced
The climax is killing as kennings whiz by us
Colt-strong and Glock-sturdy cowboys and gladiators
Whose bullets sing love songs to all the dead virgins
Bells battle for victory you cover your ears
War is alliterative war wounds the wounded
In your dreams there are ballads someone is crooning
A king shuffles eastward a son plays a knight
And noon is a notion as high as a kite
The sky is white; the world spills into noon.
You smile. All love is close to prayer;
and the mercy of the Angelus
abides in the taut promise of its bells,
the way they arouse the soul, their ringing
an awakening to lyric and to death.
This country of old men flirts with death
as the sun pins itself to white at noon
as if white were a cause. The ringing
in our ears is nothing like a prayer.
You yearn for the solace of the bell’s
curve but something fell through the Angelus
and got stuck on the other side. The angel? Us?
Mary? you can’t tell. You are sick of death,
the way it secretes itself between the bell’s
wide lips, the way it translates noon
into something sooner. The call to prayer
is an obsession, a stubborn ringing
in your ears. If this blasted ringing
doesn’t stop we’ll go mad. The Angelus
can’t belong to you. It’s not a prayer
well suited to a land where sex and death
play chess with each other at noon.
Deafness and dogma doled out in decibels.
You, my love, desire climax. Ring my bell,
you plead. I do. But my clumsy ringing
is not a worthy entry into the afternoon.
Something insidious about the Angelus
holds us in like spandex. A little death
sprinkled like salt (or maybe ash) on prayer
tames our libidos. The Credo (a prayer
you learned in your youth) never lets lust’s bells
ring for long. All sounds march to death
and all the clay gods made in school ring
the same cracked bell. The midday Angelus
re-conceives a virgin at the stroke of noon.
But death is never a virgin and passion engenders prayer.
Noon cracks open like a skull under a guillotine of bells
while inside the confessional, a choir of washer women wring out the Angelus.
III: Sunset Orison
Your stones proclaim la petite mort
their shadows verse and psalm
Your swinging trees are sermons
do no harm, do no harm, do no harm
We walk a gender into night
We eat upon the ground
We will not lie inside a tomb
hooded and without sound
The mouth of the South keeps moving
the eyes of the South are red
ears in the South still waltzing
to the tunes of the boys long dead
The kettle whistles Dixie, and the landscapes chant the red rhythms
of lost tribes. In the South and the North we’re all cross-bred.
O, America, I have been listening from my new perch
unseen in the rusting glory-cage of the South.
You are not yet old. Your fingers are still green.
And what of the bells of sunset? What of the prayer of dust?
The bell is the mouth that dares, still, to open.
The prayer, my love, is us.