The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by A CLOSER LOOK: Afaa Michael Weaver
I can never convince
—Afaa Michael Weaver
from “The Poet Reclining”
Each issue of Innisfree takes a closer look at the poems of an especially accomplished contemporary poet with a significant body of work. Even such poets can be, if not unrecognized, then under-recognized, at least in your editor’s estimation. Such a poet is Afaa Michael Weaver, whose vision and voice are surely among the most distinctive and compelling of our time. Imagine my pleasure, then, when just days after inviting Mr. Weaver to be the subject of this closer look came the announcement of his winning the 2014 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award—one of the awards most coveted by American poets (not least for its $100,000 prize)—for his twelfth collection, The Government of Nature.
A native of Baltimore, Mr. Weaver was for fifteen years, like his father before him, a factory worker at Bethlehem Steel, writing poems all the while. This sustained effort was rewarded with an NEA fellowship in 1985, which freed him to leave factory work; his first collection, Water Song, was published by Callaloo Poetry that same year. Many more books, honors, and other achievements have followed, including three Pushcart Prizes and the May Sarton Poetry Prize. Also a playwright, he has received the PDI Award in playwriting from ETA Creative Arts Foundation. He has been awarded a second fellowship from the NEA, as well as fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Pew Foundation, and a Fulbright award to teach in Taiwan. As a translator, he works in Mandarin Chinese. Mr. Weaver completed his graduate work in creative writing at Brown University. He also acted in the film A String of Pearls. He teaches at Simmons College, and is a visiting faculty member at Drew University.
Poems may well tell us what it was like to be alive at a certain time and place, but they also embody the sensibility of a single artist who emerged from a particular socio-cultural heritage and so viewed and experienced that time and place in a singular way. In the May/June 2014 issue of The American Poetry Review, Mr. Weaver published an essay entitled "The Aftermath and Malcolm X" (based on a paper he gave at the 2013 Boston AWP Conference), in which he addresses, movingly and with transcendent insight, two of his older poems and the issues of race and personal trauma that underlay their writing. In so doing, he gifts us with an appreciation for one man’s origins as a distinctive artist:
More information and poems are available here:
A Selection of Poems
by Affa Michael Weaver
I. from The Plum Flower Dance (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007),
first volume of the Plum Flower Trilogy:
The survey says all groups can make more money
if they lose weight except black men . . . men of other colors
and women of all colors have more gold, but black men
are the summary of weight, a lead thick thing on the scales,
meters spinning until they ring off the end of the numbering
of accumulation, how things grow heavy, fish on the
ends of lines that become whales, then prehistoric sea life
beyond all memories, the billion days of human hands
working, doing all the labor one can imagine, hands
now the population of cactus leaves on a papyrus moon
waiting for the fire, the notes from all their singing gone
up into the salt breath of tears of children that dry, rise
up to be the crystalline canopy of promises, the infinite
gone fishing days with the apologies for not being able to love
anymore, gone down inside Earth somewhere where
women make no demands, have fewer dreams of forever
these feet that marched and ran and got cut off, these hearts
torn out of chests by nameless thieves, this thrashing
until the chaff is gone out and black men know the gold
of being the dead center of things, where pain is the gateway
to Jerusalems, Boddhi trees, places for meditation and howling
keeping the weeping heads of gods in their eyes.
Blues in Five/Four, the Violence in Chicago
In movies about the end of our civilization
toys fill the broken spaces of cities, flipping over
in streets where children are all hoodlums, big kids
painting themselves in neon colors, while the women
laugh, following the men into a love of madness.
Still shots show emptiness tearing the eyes of the last
of us who grew to be old, the ones the hoodlums
prop up in shadows, throwing garbage at us,
taping open our eyes, forcing us to study the dead
in photos torn from books in burned down libraries.
Chicago used to be Sundays at Gladys’ Luncheonette
where church folk came and ate collard greens and chicken
after the sermons that rolled out in black churches, sparkling
tapestries of words from preachers' mouths, prayer books,
tongues from Tell Me, Alabama, and Walk On, Mississippi.
Now light has left us, the sun blocked out by shreds
of what history becomes when apathy shreds it,
becoming a name the bad children give themselves
as they laugh and threaten each other while we starve
for the laughter we were used to before the end came.
II. from The Government of Nature (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013),
Kingsley Tufts Award, second volume of the Plum Flower Trilogy:
To Those Who Would Awaken
it will happen like this for many of you,
The Ten Thousand
The rain comes late, draws the afternoon into darkness,
until it curves down over your lips. The taste of every living thing
is in the rain drop the way all things open their eyes inside
a single bloom in the garden that is now hushed in a robe.
Whatever you feel about it, whether you live for it or pray
for the rains to die, the water joins with all of us, tendon, bone,
artery, vein, saliva, everything that melts and goes hard, escapes
as air. The water brings a reunion for a moment with what we know
each time we breathe ourselves here or are forced to breathe.
If I write without color it is to obey the gray way rain brings
the past to us. The ten thousand are one giant palace with a room
for remembering, where you must stand alone, touch and believe
while it seems you are touching nothing and have gone all mad
in this life, this gift. We are sitting on a rock in the thick falling
of water, purple lilies are growing in the sun’s ocean shadow,
sheep with golden wool are flying in the trees, a patient monkey
is bandaging a wounded blade of grass, the garden is a mesa,
seeds are mountain caves, the moon has gone infinite, made
two of its own selves for each of our palms. Now we have faces.
The ecstasy of being eaten is more than the fear
in the teased air between pine needles and red lilacs
where we take turns shooting through the thin circles
made on the edge of the hawk’s wings, the tiny space
it cannot come back to except to arc up again,
navigate, draw once more the line from her eye
to a place where we have no escape. It is the way
the heat pumps the whole mountain until it is drunk
with sun, so full of it that its stone heart melts
to make its own waters trickle down the slopes
to gather in the gullies, softening the ground
for the snakes who have lost their envy of dragons.
It is the teeth, sometimes the sweet juice of the mouth,
the belly flesh of the jaws, the eyes falling back
into themselves with relief from hunger. We think
ourselves invisible but still the lure of going in
is greater than the fear of never coming out, so we give
ourselves to the joy of change. Time always ignites
again, even from the great time of nothing that spat
the world from the long sleep, that too a hunger
like this way we ache to know desire lives in the eye.
Do not rush to know the difference as that will be a door
too large for those who rush. Take instead the slow touchof bamboo. Come each morning to the same tree and rub
it slowly the way you would rub a limb of your own.
Know that you may lose it to a surgeon’s knife and touch
every thin line. Feel the color of a single shaft of the thing
the way you would find the smallest places on a finger.
Put your lips against the leaves the way you would kiss
the hair on your own arms. Embrace it with all of you
and promise to keep the farmer’s axe away. Promise to shoo
away the poison air of the cities. Ask the earth to bless
it with children that are bamboo. Come at night and wait
for the bamboo to sing in the wind, wait until the song comes,
until hunger makes you angry. Think of the lines of bamboo,
how they shoot up and then bend with their accomplishment.
This may take more years than you have, or you may press
the bamboo into a heartless fear of its own beauty.
If so, start again, more slowly this time. After each step,
pray for the children who went back into the sea without
enough time to learn the songs of bamboo, or to remember.
A hand pulled me open, down on the bed,
down on the bed, looking up, holding the covers
while the soft soul of me like a crab’s inedible meat,lifted away, meat with thick strings that hold together,
then elongate themselves to keep me tied,
bound in the body until this lifting, the soul’s ugly meat
becoming wings and I flew, above the house, the graves
behind it in Baltimore Cemetery with grandma’s
marker holding our names. The ceiling was the law
saying stop! . . . until the hand gave me the gift
of flying . . . in my heart, yes, it is the heart. Night
became a magnet of my craving to be one thing
forming in the womb of my mother where
nascent nubs of self take shape, the brain still
asleep in its mysteries until the heart awakens,
thumps itself into beating with a drum song we know
in the endless connections of intestines and brain,
mind of gut . . . mind. Sages say we can fly
when God falls asleep, his arm hitting the floor
we call Earth so the touched can dream of home.
If You Tell
If you tell, the stars will turn against you,
you will have not night but emptiness.
If you tell, you will live in an old house
in the desert all alone with cactus for friends.
If you tell, people will hide their children
from the monster others say your kind are.
If you tell, the police will add you to the list
of people who might have killed the albatross.
If you tell, you will walk in a hollow room
full of the sound of liar, liar, pants on fire.
If you tell, poets will call it marketing,
a ploy to get ahead in the game.
If you tell, women will think you are trying
to steal a place that is not yours.
If you tell, you will become a stinky thing
no aromatherapy will ever make sweet.
If you tell, all the therapists you ever saw
will claim you in reports to some conference.
If you tell, you will see the wounded everywhere,
shuffling legions, the murdered souls of children
under angels’ wings beating a prayer in a place
with no night, no day, no palladium of lies.
Dear body of mine . . .
Rosetta stone of my soul, familia vascellum,
I have brought you to the arbor of memories,
in the clinging vines, playing negro spirituals
for parakeets with mouths turned upward,
as we were when we came into the world,
me a sheaf of unwritten contracts, you a chemistry
wrestled out of love and fate, dear body of mine,
organs and nerves, vessels, pineal window
to inner space, the intersections of visions.
What abbreviated paternoster do we summon
in the night when the hand upturns the sacred portion
of a child and mixes the nerves to make monsters,
uses them for what feels unnatural, abridges
and aborts the will, or is it the will itself come down
to the only path that will let us be the difficult unknown
in the calculus that is our test along the way
to forgetting, as we agreed to this, to the pain,
the crying out for mother as trusted hands molest
a child split from the herd to bind it with karma
until the Dhammapada nods the way to nirvana.
I come with you to places I cannot go alone, as alone
I would be only the decision to be, not the things
I cannot explain to anyone, except in the privacy
of a piety I have had to own, a profane saintliness
that came to me in places too foul to remain buried
in me, these places—lotus ponds, mountains, waterfalls,
divine insignia in closets, bedrooms, bathrooms—
these places a carnival I now name as redemption,
sins multiplying, lifting the eyes of cumulus clouds
praying over the urges that rise from memories
of rape, the loneliness kept in Grace’s silence.
Dear body of mine, I push off from a knowing
that tears my eyes into a steady stream, leaving
the medulla, a tuft of grass on a hill looking up and out
to the wise fool in the center of the mind, as wishes
fall back from the perimeters of the skin, beneath to
the bone, inside the marrow to pierce the centers
of selves until knowing leaves us, tender and mortal,
desire a river longing itself into being, lost in mirrors.
If I forget to plug the sun,
let me know
If I forget to tame the sharks’ teeth,
let me know
If I forget to stop the tsunamis,
let me know
If I forget to tie up the bears,
let me know
If I forget to chase away the viruses,
let me know
If I forget to clean the unclean foods,
let me know
If I forget to stop rushing cars,
let me know
If I forget to tame the lightning,
let me know
If I forget to melt the slippery ice,
let me know
If I forget to outlaw nightmares,
let me know
If I forget to put perverts away,
let me know
If I forget that the divine thing
moved inside me to write this,
the thing that can do all things,
let me know
let me down easy
into the earth.
Evensong at Christ Church
In the ceiling is the miracle,
the stone locking to stone, holding
up the place, and when the priest
strides over in his garments, I want
to join the sanctuary, be settled
in the common book of prayer, tied
into the histories of wills to power
inside the single strand of my soul,
be a foreigner visiting the inexact art
of wanting to breathe, wanting to test
the lives between earth and nothing.
Not the unlettered blood or its least
atom of difference move my knees
too stiff to kneel, prayers and tears
edging out of forgotten closets.
Holding the seam of my split self
out into the aisle, I make a wish
no one can see in their chanting,
as I pray over the Messiah’s naked
body, our unlikely communion,
to summon the least bloodied atom
of what can be whole again.
In Oxford the evenings are order
to our unordered eyes, the left right
backward origin of English, choirs
of stares when we pause at corners,
the whole place my extended self
turned inside out as a child, spun
into the cruel search for a truth
of what I was intended to be,
my own flesh to my own bones.
Washing the Car with My Father
It is the twilight blue Chevrolet,
four doors with no power but the engine,
whitewall tires, no padding on the dashboard,
the car I drive on dates, park on dark lanes
to ask for a kiss, now my hand goes along
the fender, wiping every spot, the suds
in the bucket, my father standing at the gate,
poor and proud, tall and stout, a wise man,
a man troubled by a son gone missing
in the head, drag racing his only car
at night, traveling with hoodlums to leave
the books for street life, naming mentors
the men who pack guns and knives, a son
gone missing from all the biblical truth,
ten talents, prophecies, burning bushes,
dirty cars washed on Saturday morning.
He tells me not to miss a spot, to open
the hood when I’m done so he can check
the oil, the vital thing like blood, blood
of kinship, blood spilled in the streets
of Baltimore, blood oozing from the soul
of a son walking prodigal paths leading
to gutters. Years later I tell him the stories
of what his brother-in-law did to me, and
he wipes a tear from the corner of his eye,
wraps it in a white handkerchief for church,
walks up the stairs with the aluminum
crutch to scream at the feet of black Jesus
and in these brittle years of his old age we
grow deeper, talk way after midnight,
peeping over the rail of his hospital bed
as we wash the twilight blue Chevrolet.
The cement border kept them on one side,
On the other bricks pushed down in the lawn
while they outgrew and spilled over the lilies,
far away from my sweet potatoes, the food
from roots I started in glass jars in the window.
You came in the quiet moments, in one of your
old dresses, walking side to side on old slippers
in late spring, days before we built the awning
that made shade where there was no shade,
added the tapping sound of the rain to our ears.
In the rain the petunias held up, the strangeness
of fragile stem and bright petals, the violet inviolate
it seemed, under the rain that fell until the slurping
was like a tongue going up and down some part of me
I will not name here, not on this page, not in this light.
The slurping like the slurping today, here in this place
where I have barricaded myself for ten years, the bars
on the windows, the back wall a solid stack of giant
stone bricks set before your mother was born, secure
now, I listen to the rain, how it is kept away from me.
If I choose to walk in it, this glory as natural
as undisturbed sex in undisturbed lives, it will feel
and smell like something welcome, something I want —
had I not been undressed, had I not been handled
in the dark and made to know an evil wetness.
At night I wonder how deep my sleep would be
had you known I was in danger and saved me.
It is not the stone or the cave’s hollow way
without heat, or the dead stillness in a tiger’s eyes
turning to dig razor claws deep into soft flesh
the way death aligns itself with life, none of this
is what Cold Mountain means, leaving the city,
climbing up into the hills to pull time away
from itself. It is the way spirit reveals itself
in the bones, where spirit lives, dances into bright
sparks of electric in the trail it uses to travel
in us with lines that have no map except
what poets make, the dream vision, the film
of mucus over the baby’s face, a veil
seeing into our other worlds where allies
root for us, give us a slight chance when we go
up to the wall to sit in silence, to remember
nothing from nothing leaves the rise and falling
away of breath. At Cold Mountain I found dirty
mirrors where I hoped to see my own clean face.
III. from City of Eternal Spring (University of Pittsburgh Press, September 2014), third volume of the Plum Flower Trilogy :
The Workers in Beijing
It is lunchtime, say the feet clomping out from
tarpaulins, metal riggings, walls in progress, men
with blue hats in their hands, clothes thick with work.
In China this hard march to uplift and wealth
is called the time of cruelty, mandatory twelve
hour shifts, a mouth of a gift horse for the poor.
They pass me frozen in the intersection,
it is time for lunch and I reach for my brown bag,
fried chicken sandwich, sweet potato pie, a cup
of coffee on the top of the heater in the steel mill,
somewhere in my pocket a hidden book speaks—
Three Negro Classics, DuBois looking ahead
of me to now, my mecca to China, the math
of fifteen years of factory life coming to a dance
between three and five, the three the way things
come to be as the immortals dream of the Yijing
way to reality, the oracle of all change, a thin
Howling Wolf looking for peace inside the blues,
where five is the flattened fifth or the five tones
of this language of hand and ache, the rhythm
of my life, my worker heart a lotus pond
in Hainan, the water murky, the sun an unsure
but steady nuclear fume that breathes a sting into
spring, with daffodils, with children who do not die.
Some whistle blows, I go back down under
with these men I do not know, singing a song
my father sang—fifteen years ain’t no long time
I got a brother somewhere got a lifetime.
In Los Angeles airport I sit
stunned by the English, letters
harsh things with no stories
I know. The food smells dead,
metal forks and knives set
for making war against food.
I am undone and done again,
broken off from narratives
of birth and being, of limits
broken by the genius of slaves.
I stand here where I was born,
and the masks wait for me.
IV. from A Hard Summation (Central Square Press, 2014):
A cruel silence in the night, the children’s songs
pulled under a rustle of leaves, mothers turning away
for a second to pick up toys dropped in shadows,
as hands cover children’s mouths, their heels
struggling in soft dirt, swallowed by forests,
birth turned to death, the yard empty, neighbors
hushed by wailing from houses where ache lives,
a cruel silence in the night, the children's songs
gone, mama pulled into the broad arms of papa,
dry womb of old sinew and bone, eyes glazed,
sons and daughters, hope against old age, swept up
by strangers to lie down in the music of deep water.
A Ship’s Log
Children who gave us life . . .
a family's seed on board the Jesus Maria
Who took you? Sherbro Mende Portuguese?
Who took your name to your mother's ears
to whisper, child gone, womb of your grandchildren
gone? Who set you free in Havana? What filled you
in the ship of two hundred thirty-four mostly children,
half of them boys, half of them girls, eight, nine, ten
years into a language they will forget, what happened
to the crew listening to children cry for weeks
from Freetown to Havana, Freetown where slaves
begin . . . and did the crisp light of the moon curse sailors
who waited to ease below to prowl and touch at night?
Children . . . a ship full of mothers screaming where
these could not hear their names being cried out,
girls and boys shivering in the creak of wood
in the water, the forward dip and lean of sail to wind,
their names being cried out in languages they will barely
know if they live to think of what they know . . . ribbed
womb of ship belly, plank to plank, cog and nail, cupped
hands of demons moving in the Atlantic to progress
with children whose names have kept their power—
Mamboa Bunde Sulu Guebo Mafoma Janu
Boya Daru Maju Cobre Mafe Ita
Dora Duevo Maqueni Momo Manene Canundi
Cumba Guenda Iacaye Sese Beilu Colloma
sons and daughters, hope against old age, swept up
by strangers to lie down in the music of deep water,
a baptism in a melody of grief, the children praying
to be loved in a world their mothers do not know
in Africa where stars try to make peace with death
In Charleston, the Slave Market
A mother speaks to a dream that speaks to her
on an Igbo bed, tell me where my children are,
she asks of the air that makes itself a door
beyond the door over the last touch, the last
smell of her children's hair full of sun, speckled
with dirt from playing, how do they eat now?
she asks of the dream, but the dream is too kind
to tell the truth, the markets where they stand naked,
white women poking at them, looking over places
only mothers should touch, shopping for black pets
for white children, for girls who can grow and make
more black children, as if they are gardens, and what
gardens they are to a mother on her Igbo bed who asks
her husband, old man who cannot make children,
what do we do? shall we stop speaking? The dream
dries itself up, pulls away so grief can become death
and kindness to hearts too full to sleep, and they
sleep the sleep of wind over wild grass, the moon
over impotent prayers, the wild sounds of angels and
hyenas, they sleep until sleep is all there is, the grace
of the end of wondering, while in Charleston one child
is sold here, one child there, one swimming leagues
down under in the dark tongue of the ocean where
thunderheads in Charleston harbor cannot send the rain.
mama’s little baby got some something
mama’s little baby got a sweet potato pie
mama’s little baby got some something
mama’s little baby got a hot butter biscuit
gonna bring it to you mama, right now
Night Song for Missy
My bones tied up with his bones at night,
him falling asleep in my arm after wrasslin me,
calling it love in some kind of low whisper
no dog would believe. I know his every smell,
every way the littlest corner of him be stinkin
underneath me, on top of me, while our children
snore in the corner, then he creep out the way
he creep in, before the cock crow at the sun.
In daylight he act like we strangers, on the edge
of the field, his little tan children of mine turning
brown, playing more than working cause they his
children, Missy look over at me while I look
over at her, both of us got some kind of papers
on this same man that say he own both of us,
the man who owes us even when he die cause
the Bible say you gotta look after the widow.
But when he die it will be cause Missy and me
locked eyes many days and hated him like one
wronged woman made out of two, him standing
up there on the porch studyin everything—
his eyes lit up like he the Lord of all creation.
hush now, night wind on my skin, hush now
bird lost in trees, hush now, hungry moon
The Little Rock 9
It is Monday, I am twelve years old,
summer still feel like summer to me . . .
My elementary school principal was white
I only had one white teacher, she was named
after the juice the astronauts took into space,
Tang, I got some Tang at home . . . did you hear
about the little girls who got killed while we was
in Sunday School yesterday?
I live in Baltimore and so do you,
your people the raw and stinky crew,
my daddy a big shot on the Avenue
your daddy can’t buy a pair of shoes . . .
One little girl was named Addie Mae,
just like my aunt from South Carolina,
and when I come home from church
everybody was cryin about the news
from Alabama . . . I know Alabama
Alabama was on the math test today—
The bus is hot, the white neighborhood
full of angry faces just two miles from where
we live, angry faces I see at night when I look
out the window and wonder why I have to sit
next to white children to be smart . . . I was smart
all the time, my mama told me so when I did
things the right way, extra things, good things,
smart is knowin when somethin’s missing . . .
Carlotta Walls LaNier
I like Malcolm X because he looks like me
when I am so mad I can’t stand myself, when
my cousins take my model car shelf down,
break up my cars and then dare me to fight,
when I have to walk from the white school
home through the white neighborhood when
I miss the bus or when I get a beatin for what
my friend did and he get a beatin, too, but
mine hurt more because he did it, not me, so
I like Malcolm X. He so mean, Mr. Green,
he so mean . . . you got to be mean in Chicago . . .
When I was fourteen a boy kissed me
when we were walking to the movies,
he sneaked me, and I tried not to smile
because kissing is a sin and all the while
I was so full of hallelujah on the inside,
on the way to the movies we go to now
because somebody made a way somehow,
standing in lines with protest signs, dogs
barking all around, so I make sure I sound
educated when Henry sneaks to kiss me
on the way to the movies . . . we have
all kinds of movies in Philadelphia . . .
Gloria Ray Karlmark
New York is faster than yesterday,
been here and gone before you remember
it ain’t here no more, we go downtown
in the middle of tomorrow when it still be
today, New York is faster than yesterday,
I got a quarter for your ten dollar bill,
give it to me I’ll pay your cleaners bill
because New York is faster than yesterday,
and a high school diploma is all a genius
like me will ever need in a city where
a thrill is more to me if you will believe
me . . . and believe me you will . . .
What a word will do, my mama used to say
at night when her work was done, rearing back
in that chair of hers with the stuffin fallin out
of the arms, what a word will do when you know
what words are for, she would say, layin her head
back, closing her eyes and settling down
inside some dream. She never told us her dreams
when we asked her, she just said we would know
when the moon turned over three times and ghosts
rose up out of the sea. Mama was half out
of this world, in California we all the way in it . . .
Melba Patillo Beals
Little Rock Nine,
Shaking the line
Between white no
And black oh yes,
I’ll walk all over
What is mine, thanks
To Little Rock Nine.
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