Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday Poet: Yusef Komunyakaa

Believing in Iron

The hills my brothers & I created

Never balanced, & it took years

To discover how the world worked.

We could look at a tree of blackbirds

& tell you how many were there,

But with the scrap dealer

Our math was always off.

Weeks of lifting & grunting

Never added up to much,

But we couldn't stop

Believing in iron.

Abandoned trucks & cars

Were held to the ground

By thick, nostalgic fingers of vines

Strong as a dozen sharecroppers.

We'd return with our wheelbarrow

Groaning under a new load,

Yet tiger lilies lived better

In their languid, August domain.

Among paper & Coke bottles

Foundry smoke erased sunsets,

& we couldn't believe iron

Left men bent so close to the earth

As if the ore under their breath

Weighed down the gray sky.

Sometimes I dreamt how our hills

Washed into a sea of metal,

How it all became an anchor

For a warship or bomber

Out over trees with blooms

Too red to look at.


I sit beside two women, kitty-corner

to the stage, as Elvin's sticks blur

the club into a blue fantasia.

I thought my body had forgotten the Deep

South, how I'd cross the street

if a woman like these two walked

towards me, as if a cat traversed

my path beneath the evening star.

Which one is wearing jasmine?

If my grandmothers saw me now

they'd say, Boy, the devil never sleeps.

My mind is lost among November

cotton flowers, a soft rain on my face

as Richard Davis plucks the fat notes

of chance on his upright

leaning into the future.

The blonde, the brunette—

which one is scented with jasmine?

I can hear Duke in the right hand

& Basie in the left

as the young piano player

nudges us into the past.

The trumpet's almost kissed

by enough pain. Give him a few more years,

a few more ghosts to embrace—Clifford's

shadow on the edge of the stage.

The sign says, No Talking.

Elvin's guardian angel lingers

at the top of the stairs,

counting each drop of sweat

paid in tribute. The blonde

has her eyes closed, & the brunette

is looking at me. Our bodies

sway to each riff, the jasmine

rising from a valley somewhere

in Egypt, a white moon

opening countless false mouths

of laughter. The midnight

gatherers are boys & girls

with the headlights of trucks

aimed at their backs, because

their small hands refuse to wound

the knowing scent hidden in each bloom.

The Whistle


The seven o'clock whistle

Made the morning air fulvous

With a metallic syncopation,

A key to a door in the sky---opening

& closing flesh. The melody

Men & women built lives around,

Sonorous as the queen bee's fat

Hum drawing workers from flowers,

Back to the colonized heart.

A titanous puff of steam rose

From the dragon trapped below

Iron, bricks, & wood.

The whole black machine

Shuddered: blue jays & redbirds

Wove light through leaves

& something dead under the foundation

Brought worms to life.

Men capped their thermoses,

Switched off Loretta Lynn,

& slid from trucks & cars.

The rip saws throttled

& swung out over logs

On conveyer belts.

Daddy lifted the tongs

To his right shoulder . . . a winch

Uncoiled the steel cable

From its oily scrotum;

He waved to the winchman

& iron teeth bit into the pine.

Yellow forklifts darted

With lumber to boxcars

Marked for distant cities.

At noon, Daddy would walk

Across the field of goldenrod

& mustard weeds, the pollen

Bright & sullen on his overalls.

He'd eat on our screened-in

Back porch---red beans & rice

With hamhocks & cornbread.

Lemonade & peach Jello.

The one o'clock bleat

Burned sweat & salt into afternoon

& the wheels within wheels

Unlocked again, pulling rough boards

Into the plane's pneumatic grip.

Wild geese moved like a wedge

Between sky & sagebrush,

As Daddy pulled the cable

To the edge of the millpond

& sleepwalked cypress logs.

The day turned on its axle

& pyramids of russet sawdust

Formed under corrugated

Blowpipes fifty feet high.

The five o'clock whistle

Bellowed like a bull, controlling

Clocks on kitchen walls;

Women dabbed loud perfume

Behind their ears & set tables

Covered with flowered oilcloth.


When my father was kicked by the foreman,

He booted him back,

& his dreams slouched into an aftershock

Of dark women whispering

To each other. Like petals of a black rose

In one of Busby Berkeley's

Oscillating dances in a broken room. Shadows,

Runagates & Marys.

The steel-gray evening was a canvas

Zigzagged with questions

Curling up from smokestacks, as dusky birds

Brushed blues into a montage

Traced back to L'Amistad & the psychosis

Behind Birth of a Nation.

With eyes against glass & ears to diaphanous doors,

I heard a cornered prayer.

Car lights rubbed against our windows,

Ravenous as snow wolves.

A brick fell into the livingroom like a black body,

& a riot of drunk curses

Left the gladioli & zinnias

Maimed. Double dares

Took root in night soil.

The whistle boiled

Gutbucket underneath silence

& burned with wrath.

But by then Daddy was with Uncle James

Outside The Crossroad,

Their calloused fingers caressing the .38

On the seat of the pickup;

Maybe it was the pine-scented moonglow

That made him look so young

& faceless, wearing his mother's powder blue

Sunday dress & veiled hat.


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