From Citizen, I
A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the café you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something-she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren't they supposed to get rid of it?-her son wasn't accepted. You are not sure if you are meant to apologize for this failure of your alma mater's legacy program; instead you ask where he ended up. The prestigious school she mentions doesn't seem to assuage her irritation. This exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive.
A friend argues that Americans battle between the "historical self" and the "self self." By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.
From Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014). Reprinted with permission of the publisher
Like any mother I lived for my children. Bone of my bones, gave them my body as house, and gave them my house as home. I was fruitful. I multiplied. Nothing was ever my own and I called this sacrifice, devotion. What I called them became their names. Some grew and some did not. Some were angry and some were not. Some murdered, some tended the flocks, some built boats to escape the flood. Some built towers into the sky. Some became pillars of salt. I fed them by the sweat of my brow. Some needed more than I could give them, though I saved only thorns and thistles for myself. God was a voice in the sky with no tree to burn. God was a shower of burning sulfur, a snake winding through the dirt. If I had a moment to spare, I might have bent to hear what he was saying.
This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, summer 2018
Famous people have been dying all week, and the Christmas tree just stopped drinking. Talk about omens. It's impossible to get the venetian blinds to stay level anymore. Everywhere I look, people are running the errands they won't remember by this time tomorrow. I remember how, years ago, I had to cut the fishing line caught in the high branches beside the Mullica River, sacrificing the lure that put a kink in my neck as I hunched over my own lap to tie it. I fear my wife will decide to spend my last decade on earth with a better man. I fear I'll be a footnote to somebody else's grandeur. I fear I'll die as painfully as I deserve. One by one, the bulbs of the chandelier go dead above our dining room table. I wish I could say the coming dark was taking me by surprise.
"Forecast" originally appeared in The Smoke of Horses (BOA Editions, 2017)