The wave comes down with the weight of a breaking nation. This is so
because there is nothing before or after—the first noise,
a mountain of chained birds, which is to say wailing
which is to say singing, which is to say being beaten, or filled
with spirits who take their pain like
thieves with white faces
The water dumps corpses onto the stage illuminated feathers make their passage
from the fly loft. In the dark the audience is absence, the color: nothing
reflecting feathers, feathers falling into absence.
[cue Grande Drapes]
The not-yet-dead tunnel through the remains and crawl downstage.
They have survived, and so, broken and naked
hunt for new life. In the sand one finds a pair of glasses, another
a toppless straw hat and loincloth.
They fly off in every direction—
The white folks feed the black bird
until he can’t fly. They gift him a vest and
hat to make him feel civilized. They gift him corn
meal after meal, and sometimes the leftover hog.
They gift him Sugar, too, tell him
if he doesn’t keep picking in the field
they’ll string him up in the elm
with the other dead.
The white folks name him Fat Crow,
and though he can’t fly he can make a cloud
of dust—is gone by dawn.
Straw Hat and his brother Glasses Crow
whistle at every white woman in the city.
And the women giggle. And the crows whistle.
And then they find a brother in the street,
unmoving, with a line of chalk,
whiter than the woman, around him.
And the white men giggle. And the crows caw.
The white men pluck the brother’s plumage,
unzip the skin, remove the blue-black
boy curled inside. His talon-less feet.
His smooth, beak-less face. His beautiful,
wing-less limbs. Straw Hat and Glasses
dance around the chalk drawing for days.
And the white men leave the brother’s skin
in the streets. And the crows take his bones
Preacher Crow watches the spirit house,
but he never sees any spirits. He listens
to the pastor reading to the ghost-faced
people from sliced tree bark. He listens
to the singing and he wonders why
the people have no soul. He thinks sometimes
the growling of the sky is the voice of god.
But when the clouds roil and pop
like tar bubbles it doesn’t end in revelation.
Released rain seems, to Preacher Crow, to be
the opposite of possession. An exorcism.
The pastor says
the white man hanging from the tree
is holy, a symbol. Preacher Crow can’t read
but he knows a liar when he sees him.
First the white men tell Jim Crow to stay away
from the drinking fountains. Then the food.
Their children. Their wives.
The white men make a law, say
Nigger Jim, you learn your place
we’ll give you a basketball, a whip, chains,
a crack pipe, a noose.
Jump, Nigga Jim! Jump!
That’s what animals do when they’re scared.
The white men forgot
Jim can fly.
The mind is this beach—
Take this stage and fill it. The body,
a robe swaddling the fistful of atoms
that make us. It is enough.
[stage left: enter the angel
Azrael, leading a string of men,
can take a man’s head
off. The dunes are heaps
of bullets—what the water returns.
All night Preacher Crow went on
moaning and yelling, filling with the spirit
of things unnamable. The moon sliced
through purple clouds to hear gold
teeth pushing away from receding gums.
It aches still, to know the sea is not ignorable,
the sand, for now, just sand, the sea
a waving field of poppies
beneath which black and blacker flow
and flow. Along
this beach is the mind
coming to terms with the stage—
the stage, like everything,
because it is so. All night,
the deep cries dragging themselves to dry land—
Glasses Crow flew out three days ago.
He won’t return. He fell into the eye of his Orisha—
the peacock, deep into the sun.
And Jim Crow drove his Cadillac
back and forth along the beach.
He sold crack from his Cadillac. Once
his Cadillac was swallowed by sand
but the sea was not ignorable,
the beach large. Larger
than the brother they named Fat
Crow, who lay open and staring
through the collard greens,
through insulin induced dreams,
chanting, There. There.
All night Preacher Crow yells.
You ain’t never seen no elephants fly.
There is no room for elephants,
says the sea.
And overhead flaps a drone
casting the shadow of a woman
carrying a torch—like a flag,
the tips of the fire waving.
We will cut down our own
bodies from trees. We will cut down
[cue horns] [cue laugh track]
I. Preacher Crow Sees the Creators
Deep in the forest Preacher finds trees
the white man stripped to make his papyrus, his spirit
house, pews, so called good book, and crosses. The brooke
coughs dry and Preacher thinks it too is made
by talcum hands, is suddenly afraid to have them—
those hands. Those hands he followed into the wood
like a trail of candy skullseach placed
with calculation.Deep in the magic forest
Preacher finds everything dipped in dark
holiness. He feels the tip of a word, like a pen,
suddenly. There is a mouse. There is a dog,
suddenly. There is language to explain
what is severedfrom the wrist
II. Jim Crow in the Magic Forest Above the Kuklos
Jim likes the heat and thinks the voice of the fire
might be a woman’s. It should, he thinks,
because only a woman’s love can be this warm.
But the spirit of the forest is sour. The circle
is not made of brothers. No brother’s heart
is so curdled he could burn his own. Even now
the white folks can’t look at who they kill
without hiding under blankets
like bleached animal skins they’re burning
the trees they touch and calling it magic. Singing
about the fire. How it strangles life from the body,
breaks the body back into atoms
where there are no fingerprintsthere is no crime
III. Snow White in the Glade
Straw Hat and his brother Glasses perch on the fingertips
of a tree, watch the blonde man chase the milk-skinned
girl across the mossthe trees have eyes and mouths
the trees have hearts but no voicesthey know
but won’t tell the girl she is going to die
a lazy deathwhen the blonde man drops his ax
tells her she is too pretty to be skinned
Straw Hat and his brother wonder
if the milk of her skin was instead the dark
coal of her hair, if the coal of her hair was dark
still but knotted wool would she be set free?
Would the blonde man drop his ax, stunned
by her beauty, so stunned he sets her free?
says the tree.
She is the first coal-haired woman
that has not hung from our fingers.
Listen: There is a hurt in our heels all night
that is the whistling after a bullet, the song
of a night bird cinching the spine.
Those who hear it wake to see someone
feasting at their feet as they sit up in their beds.
Listen: The night wind bawls over our bodies.
From far off the dead sing faintly, a preacher’s
yell filling the congregation,
the congregation giving up
their souls in the old spirit dance—
We say: even guilty feet have rhythm.You can see it
if you press your face to the hoods of Los Angeles
police cars. You can’t see it on the dash cams but it is
being clubbed into our faces, it is
being ground into beef
paddy wagons and served to us
on platters by foxes in tuxedos. Here’s to
the news of would-be-presidents endorsed
by Klansmen. Here’s to whitewashing
and appropriating everything
except thedeadand the bullet and the sentence.
What does it mean to be not guilty? In the streets
of North Carolina bags of peppermints and Smarties
dropped in driveways for children.
Save our Land/Join the Klan—
This rain, too, loves to dance.
It is harder work then you’d imagine,
putting your hands up
and making them stay there. It is harder work
still, being the blood
rushing to close those wounds.
Take your pick: prick
the palms, jag between the ribs,
pry open the chest
with the confederate flagpole.
If Calvary exists, it is The Hill in Eaton
where the freed slaves yanked the nails
from the God-son’s hands. Where
the only traces of our possession
are footprints in the soil beneath
praise cabins, sweat from the elder’s
fingers clasped around mouths
shouting, Union soldiers
in Shiloh, blue shrapnel
wounds glowing, given
mercy from infection.
If Calvary exists, is is this:
A white officer called for a noise complaint
joining four black teens in a game of basketball.
Listen: it is not gravity that suppresses
the dead. It is memory without rhythm.
Look at the bodies in their black hoods. Now
watch them dance. Watch them dance.
The son of a god wanted
to ride in a chariot. Imagine
the love—Phaethon, only a boy, mortal,
stepping onto the warm, jeweled plate
of the carriage. The horses must have smelt
of pine. Phaethon said,
If you are my father, prove it.
So Apollo gave him the reins.
Yes, the boy was a bastard, but who isn’t?
The gods took what they wanted.
So do we—we take
oaths heavy like cotton, symbolic as stars, stripes
gouged into the pages of our father’s backs.
The sun came down so hard
even the gods looked away.
They won’t say we screamed in pain,
but we did, our hair curling, skin
turning the way of an avocado
when it is soft and beaten.
Even the Greeks thought
we were an accident.
It ends with this:
darkness for days,
light coming only from the clouds,
hoods over the heads
of those who put the sun down.
the punch line to a joke. On Halloween
a boy masks his face
with shoe polish, says
he’s just some dead nigger. We know
his dance and song:
hoodie, red paint, friend
I’m not racist but…
A blonde announces to the world
Black people were a lot nicer
before the civil rights movement.
I wonder why
when LeVar Burton is pulled over by cops
he takes off his hat and glasses, rests his hands
outside the window, on the door: compliance.
He is not defeated. He knows handcuffs are just
At a bar named Pranksters,
where no one is wearing your face,
the smiles are colder than the drinks
and the tree above me is dangling
colorful nooses from its arms.
When I tell the waitress
I am uncomfortable
they are there to catch birds,
my black friends
sit under them
and don’t complain—
your history is no one’s problem but your own.
She does not say,
“here in the desert race matters
as much as the weather.”
She does not say,
“it doesn’t change, the wind
just rustles the dirt, inconveniences the regulars
who want to forget what they’ve done because…”
It doesn’t matter anyway. When Phaethon died
his ashes were cast amongst the swirling stars.
Slurring, a white kid tells me he knows my people
go to college because he sees them
playing football. He announces his love for black
asses. At least
two days passed without Apollo lifting the sun,
days dark as coal, mountain shadow, dark
as Scientific Adam and the thoughts he brings.
Trayvon, if I marry a white woman maybe
my son can pass with your name.
when we leave we all
headed for that Glory Boat
but we ain’t gotta go easy
the waters is hungry
so is the men who brought us
here in the early days
they licked sweat
from our chins
to know our age
and who was strong
so now yo dna remembers
the weight of cotton
just the same
the seed remembers
the discomfort of its boll
don’t let them paper gods turn you
into no fistulated coonpraise
the red doves liftinfrom yo grandfather’s father’s back
as the whips chewed throughpraise
the red doves tumbling from the torsos—the bodies
fetishisized as they drained
pack yo heart to the brimwith hot tar
all yo scars retain the tears of black folks
with troubled soulslisten to them
moanin out on the river sista Bland
brotha Byrd Jr
the brotha Dumas—who said it best
the people get tired of dying
pack the fragile bones offaithprepare for the ritual
move from the apartment of yo skin
no more police tapesliced watermelon or cocaine
planted round on or inside our bodies
when the ark returns yo feet’ll remember
praise cabins they’ll guide yo soul to the bonehouse
come join me on the soulboat
where ain’t nothin to lose
but them chains
from other mothas
lend me your ears the evil gods
do live on the backs of men tonight
we spill cognac on the dead—
booze over drum beats no shoes
let me say:
i do believe ya’ll is honorable men i do believe
ya’ll understand i come to bury this
watermelon you see
not to raise it i do though praise them
Igbo usurped that slave ship
over near Georgia
made the white men jump right from the bow
i done seen a house fly
from the fight cloud of smoke
muskets’ muzzle burning crosses— i be done
seen about everything after that
Fat Crow say
them Igbo washed up in Saint Simons
then the slavers come
for their dough the Igbo man
they walked into the swamp
they went by choice
Glasses Straw Hat
we felt the cypress sigh let us go
the Igbo flew that way
money in the wind
that kind of freedom
kind that let’s me whistle
at every woman i see white
let’s me shake
my stanky leg in church and at festivals
and birthday parties bear with me ya’ll;
my heart in the cotton field.
my coffin the shimmying ghetto
i ain’t shivering inside
police search lights crack
pavement eye of chimera
the way it comes down on you—
after the club
when the ground surrenders
then comes the wave
all there is
this here world—
all there is—
they walked into the swamp
they went by choice
belly full of spinner kibbles
start drinking when the bodies wash up
rain from the sky
until the water is sable
until the water is uh—
that feathered wave we
climb over our dead during
the break friends dig your beak
into the present
and don’t let go
too far out in raw waters
the wave so big
ain’t yo story to tell but ya’ll honorable
men ya’ll swallow
your expectations like the skull
of a week-old fox or eagle egg—
stuck in the throat
Dexter L. Booth is the author of Scratching the Ghost (Graywolf Press, 2013). His poems have been included in the anthology The Best American Poetry 2015 (edited by Sherman Alexie), as well as Blackbird, The Southeast Review, Ostrich Review, Grist, Willow Springs, Bat City Review, Virginia Quarterly, and other publications. Booth is currently a Contributing Editor for Waxwing, and a Ph.D. candidate and Provost Fellow at the University of Southern California.
This originally appeared on March 26, 2017