From The Body's Fire
James Baldwin at the Station
J’ai laissé des ames dont
la peine s’accroîtra de mon départ!
—Rimbaud, “Mauvais Sang”
Uptown was the hard part,
getting over the look
of it, the over-flowered feel
of windblown places.
And the bus
struggled so, exasperating
as if its organs had gone
inside the ribs, finally gasping
up the backs
of the avenues.
I want to imagine his
last evening, how a woman smiled
at him in the station,
lounging against the wall, her curved
when he drew near
like a statue set
free, a skirt
tight as bronze, Rodin
holding linen down to sketch
a figure, an artist.
Here is Baldwin at last
on his way, a beret
in his bag, a gentleman on his arm
in Paris. He sees it
that way watching bus-darkened
faces cross before him
while he waits for the transfer,
imagines flying before he goes, and
his language spoken
in the city of light.
Toward the Skin
My friend stops his father
in the doorway, asks him
to show me the numbers burned
to his wrist like small white
promises. He asks this so easily
me, as his father lifts
a hairy forearm to the hall
light and holds stiff
while we watch
and wait for history
to move past us. This is the same friend
I lie with in a tent
near the highway,
something desperate in our awkward
moves toward the skin,
some inevitable ride
we must take
away from each other. He tastes like salt,
as if he were made of it,
more like salt
I've ever known. And if after this
my landscape turns strange
and I run from the burnt field
of my desires
as if I could get around it
and my world seems
from within, I ask what dark passage
was I called to, what rage
was I used, like so many others,
At four in the morning the streets in Cleveland
break up and roll themselves away
only to be planted again by the front wheels
of cars rolling downtown at daybreak. No one
sees it, but I know it happens that way.
There are people I used to work with
who would call thoughts like that crazy. Maybe
they are. But I need to explain
the prostitutes on Carnegie, the gun in every
other locker at the factory where my friend works,
the body face down in the lot where I saw it
first. I knew a black man, fifty and
strong as an ox, who tore down his painting
from our locker at Christmas. It was
beautiful and someone made him take it down. He tore
it from the wall in pieces. Some answers
are hard to get: Places don’t mean much anymore and
the smaller pains in a lifetime—
small because they weren’t yours or they happened
long ago— fade away. But I know
there is something wild beating in our hearts and
sometimes it gets out—you can almost hear it.
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Insidious at the Big K
Kafka was Insidious’ favorite author.
He loved the wicked parables,
the inflated zebra references.
Sometimes he wished for dull oratory
instead. When he was young
his grandmother took him to Sunday School
for drawing. He made a universe
on his paper—stars, clouds, a train.
The teacher looked at him despairingly.
But his shell was already up.
He wandered among the cedars,
His heart he knew now
was not in it. He looked up to the sky
where his chariot waited.
The boy falling out of it
he didn’t see. If you’re starting a revolution,
he knew, it was best to do it
with one eye closed.
. . . he writes letters to the President of the Solar System
full of intimate confessions.
— Zbigniew Herbert, trans. Alissa Valles
Dear Mister President,
There are moths inside
the stars. We heard
fluttering in midwinter against
our hearts. Two swans
live in the jet stream,
a kind of music
beneath the windy silence.
Last night we ate the river
with the stars inside.
The water drags
the sky along its surface.
At dawn, I. is descending
like a gull, not falling—an arrow always
in flight. His father molds his arms
with wax, hopes for clouds and wind.
Later, watching starfish, he thinks,
You weave cities of illusion inside yourself.
At the tips of his pinioned fingers,
he feels a sudden stirring weave through.
Impossibly, without warning, he falls
asleep in the air—arm kites tearing.
Daedalus never saw how his cheek
brushed the water just as claws gripped
his back, and real wings—the only thing
borne—either grew then and there
or the noise drowned all else,
thousands of feathers erupting.
He couldn’t say where.
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