By Roger Reeves
A Lowcountry marsh trembles with the blood of an African
Who refused to climb out of the salt and mud of the bay
And quite literally lost his head. A hunter named Hunter
Waits for the man’s wounds to close and for him to rise
Again. Some call this festive cruelty Paradise. Pleasure.
Demby, the African made to rise and suffer another shot,
Calls it the Afterlife, the unceasing blind world of death
He welcomed expecting the end to his captivity and exile.
But there is no end to the perfecting of cruelty even now
In the Afterlife, where a hawk humped up in the high weeds
And a house on fire are a congruent sadness, a brief history
Of nature’s one duty for flesh — decay, decay, decay …
Sometimes, it is as if every bird in the Afterlife trills this
One song. And I forget who I am, but then I look down
At my feet shuffling in darkness and hear my name —
Till … Till … Till … And I know I am no farmer, blade
Or mule driven over some roach-ragged road to field
And fray, and sometimes I forget how I came here to After-
Life, to pleasure, to domestic violence, to drive, be
Driven, and then I look down at my hands. It is a war
That brought you this peace, a war that brought you this peace.
And then, I heard a question: “Shall we kill all of the masters?”
And before I brokered an answer, I heard a voice say:
“Then, we must kill ourselves, first. And who will
Be left to kill the masters?” I turned to find nothing
But a boy in a tree and a girl beside him, their heads
Tolling in the wind like pecker-fretted fruit. Voice, I said,
Come now or do not come at all. And there, a man
I had seen before scratching in dust next to a drill field
With a dictionary and a strange astronomy for a face.
Ezra, is that you, I asked. “The peasants’ bent shoulders,
Odysseus and the dead bullock — call me whatever you’d like.
I come to every name like a white ox toward Pisa
And the butcher’s road. I come to Paradise dragged
By the hair … with one day’s reading and surrendered
Temple.” You do talk funny, I said. “He do the police
In different voices,” he said. And when all the voices
sound like the police, I said, kill all the voices. And so ran.
I ran from Ezra who ran after me and demanded he be
My guide. “There is no running from the forest of men.
There is no running from men.” I’ll be damned, I said —
But before I could finish Ezra said, “That’s right. Be damned.
Be here taloned and tumbling the sky down in Paradise.
Here. Be in your cage and free.” But here is not the here
I seek nor sought. For that here harangues me
And I might as well be the n*gger coming over
The obstacle fence, a periplum of certain disaster,
A choir of empty cups sitting loudly before the famished,
Your prince, dear Ezra, hanging by his heels in the piazza,
The sprezzatura of maggots rummaging the round heart
For its divinity and pulse. Ezra, nothing of you but the dead.
And so, I ran past the possum running through the skull
Holes of a dead man lying in the fog that licked them
Into a wet testimony, the possum testifying, too, to their death —
Coming, going, in ruins and floating out, out, beyond
Their murders and dropped plates, out beyond the Thame-ish
Rivers and its drowning traditions. And then I looked back
And saw Ezra. He had come to his cage and could go no farther.
“Till,” he said. “Bring me up from beneath these decks,
One slaver to another.” He winked and I winked back,
Handed him the katydid buzzing in my pocket, as I had done
Before, dug a trench around him as another had done before,
Then said, “Ezra, be here in your cage and free,” and ran.
And then I came upon a mountain and then a chasm
For which there was no bridge and so turned back
To find a possum running behind me, and I asked him,
Dear Possum, what do we do with this darkness
Between us, and the possum said nothing and ran on
Into the darkness, into the chasm and fell speaking of
The end of touch, the desire to forget desire, shadows,
The fear in a handful of dust, a woman’s mouth,
Fear I had known of and visited though now I cringed
At the thought of that violence, the violence that I brought —
And so thought to throw myself, too, in that chasm
When a hand touched my shoulder, a voice said, “Not now,
Maybe never. On we go, dear boy, through this weather.
Let’s find us another theory of light. Or darkness.”
Then, she laughed, for it was a woman with a lit darkness
And a careful chin, glasses, her body a tin of tender.
What do you know of me, I asked. She said, “Louis,
I know of you as I know fog — that it comes on
Through the alleys and past the dead boys and girls
Who had not wanted to die in those alleys and ornament
The city’s sight. Louis,” she said. “I’ve known all your light.
But do you know mine?” And I hadn’t, I hadn’t.
“I was a taken city burning,” she said, “a burning house
Built to heal the sick, a sick house full of healing,
The owl, moccasin, and panther — a rising
For which there has never been such risen, the total
Black. I is the total black. Flame and fox and knot
Of the what-nots you would have forgotten if not for me,
I am perfect fucking memory, no-dominion-defied,
And though I thought I saw I had not seen. Instead
Of one body, three. Women. And who and who and who,
I asked. They laughed at my asking and said, “You
Wouldn’t know us, but we will tell you our names —
Mother, Song, and Holy Yoke. Audre, Gwendolyn,
And Lucille. Follow us. Or heel.” And where
And where should I follow you? They did not answer,
Instead, they walked on the edge of the abyss
Laughing as if the abyss. “We are what is whatnot,
The ever shimmying out of the never-wound.
Louis, do you follow or do you fall,”
They said. “Are you short or is you tall?”
And on and on they played, pleasured, and pigeoned
With each other, kiting sound and word between them
As I have seen lovers do, passing cigarettes and smoke
From one mouth to another, the smoke the shared body
Of a God that has no master or mastering plan
Other than abiding in darkness, abiding in both
Its coronation and crucifixion. On and on we walked.
And I followed. Beyond the bears chortling pears
From Augustine’s outstretched hand, out beyond the river
Scissoring the changing maple, its leaves ambering
Then auburn then green each time a child appeared
And touched its trunk. We stopped, watched. I asked
Who are they. And the one full of light and knives answered,
Waving at a few who journeyed to the edge of the water
But did not wade in. And why don’t they wade in,
I asked. She snickered, quieted, then said,
“Wind and foxes, what was never mine but was and was.”
As if she knew I did not understand, continued, “‘The ones
I got but did not get,’ the wild hair they could not grow
But scratches me now as it did once in a dream.
Our abortions, Louis, our ones given and gave. Dem.
The ones given all of their years at once. And none
Or never.” And when she spoke, I saw another come
To the shore and wave at me, a boy given and gave, the crushed-
Color of late evening long after the pickers have come
In and settled near a pot of ox bones boiling in the evening
Of their own water, once again predicting the arch
And strange astronomy of the flesh and its march march
March to October and the battered soil. I mean I turned
From the one waving because I could not be beneath
The stairs of his steering and stare. Paradise,
Why do you bring me to such weather? Why
Would any man come down from his noose for this?
“Because coming down is exactly the point.
All heavens lesser and below heaven. Noose, not …
You came to see what has become of death … ”
The women spoke as one who had many tongues —
All Holy Ghost and gut of a river gabbling over the white
Stones. And where are we going, I asked.
“Where language begins, Till.
Paradise. But over there.”
And wasn’t this paradise that I had entered
Through the thick marsh waters out of the cane
The crowds fleeced of their living flesh at the far bank
The intubated children with their gas masks
Hanging from their hands and wandering
The sand in wet hospital gowns in this their new cancer
Wasn’t this paradise
A boy headphoned and heart drunk
Swaying at the back of the crowd mumbling to himself
Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now my whole team is fucking here
Wasn’t this paradise
The pigeons and finches flying back out
Of the pane-glassed windows they crashed through
The glass behind them opening and closing
Like some never and wound
Diastole systole the valve collapsing
In its own beating sickness wasn’t this paradise
The rows and rows of men on horseback
The gnashing of hoof in the heather
Everything ready to gallop or be galloped
Except the men and women herded
Into some queer parliament wasn’t this paradise
To refuse to run at the behest of some horsemen
The running how we arrived here wasn’t this
Paradise the end of running
“Wasn’t this paradise,” asked a man
Named Priam, a fence post cutting his head
Into two hemispheres, his mutilations and wounds
Closing, his two torn ears fluttering
Upwards from a sack hanging from a horseman’s white
Mare. “I was born with water in my voice,
The problem of a fouled well, the Lord
Gives us many, and I am the many given
But he, even as he gives, does not give a given to take
Or a given permitted to take. You see,”
And Priam stretched his hand over the people,
“We were a given taken and taken as a given.
I mean we are a transgressed light, a transgressed
People. We’ve been given this death. And now
You want us to take another death, but a man
Or woman can only take their one death.
And we have taken, we have taken, we have
Taken.” With each “taken” he pointed to the many,
To the boy with headphones who could be heard
Singing “Started from the bottom now we’re here,”
To Demby to Aunt Hester to Sandra Bland,
To Freddie Gray to Walter Scott to Eric Garner,
His throat still crushed in his one hand
Though in his other, a clutch of dry seeds
And wherever he stepped a patch of trees sprouted.
“Guides,” I asked, “where have I entered?” The names
Of the dead rolled out along the field; the whole
Field was counted — every maple, mango, muscadine,
Larkspur, ant, vine, and moss — and there was no
Answer from my guides. They stood beyond
The queer parliament of the dead, and so I rushed over
But could not make it to their portion of the field,
The edge disappearing, the banks moving back from me.
“We are not permitted,” they said. “We are not
The dead of this dead. A different light. But go.”
And then I heard my name; well, not my name
But the name of my name, “Till, Till, Till.”
And the men on the horses brought a boy up,
His hands tied, and one spoke, “It is a god
Who has given us this rest, this after and land,
This mount and tarry for the good works
Of our living. Why should we reject our peace?
No harm lasts; we live forever in our wounds.”
The man pulled his burgundy riding coat
To the side and blood ran waterfall from his ribs,
Onto his white britches. “And maybe,” a woman
Spoke, “your wounds would close if you would let ours,”
“But I am content in my wounds,” he said
And closed his riding robe though the blood labored
And labored. “I am content in my wounds.
Maybe we’ve been given to you to teach
You how to be content in yours,” he said.
“Such is given, such is given of God,
of a god.” The rider laughed and threw his head
Backward and there a wound, too, where his neck
Coupled with the skull, and the wound spoke
But not the speech of the mouth but the speech of reason,
But not the reason of Plato, Virgil, Foucault,
Or the stars maddening the night with their bursts
Of madness, their dying in the night’s hair,
But the reason of the spear that pierces
The skull and slides through the chin, letting
The darkness down, letting all the darkness down.
“I see no God here nor one to come. Let down,
Let down from your mount and execution
Garden. You are no Nebuchadnezzar.
But if you keep up this reckless lord
And master, I will show you what beast
You are from the inside out, give the leaves
And spears of grass below a winter washing
In your love.” The men on mounts shook
Their reins and laughed. “And who are you,”
They asked. “The perfection of water,”
She answered. “The perfection of water.”
The mounted man with blood running from his skull,
Shook the rope holding the neck of the boy, Till.
“Well,” he said, “call me the perfection
Of slaughter. Teacher. Farmer. Daughter, move,
I will till this after and life and land
With whatever blade I choose, given or not.
Have you misunderstood dominion — or me?”
“I have and I have not,” she said. “I am
Not your daughter. I am Oya,
The mother of your slaughter. The mother
Of this order.” The woman, Oya, bent down, touched
The dry clods of soil. “Here, here is your god.”
She held up the dirt to the noses
Of the white horses. And water began falling
From the sky. “I will show you how to touch
The earth. I will show you how to die.
Eric Garner Emmett Till Freddie Gray
Korryn Gaines Trayvon Martin Martin Luther
King Jr. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Fred Hampton
Kalief Browder Sandra Bland Rumain Brisbon
Akai Gurley Tamir Rice Laquan McDonald
Kajieme Powell Ezell Ford Dante Parker
Michael Brown John Crawford III Tyree Woodson
Victor White III Yvettte Smith McKenzie Cochran
Jordan Baker Andy Lopez Miriam
Carey Jonathan Ferrell Carlos Alcis
Larry Jackson Jr. Kimani Gray Rekia Boyd
Malissa Williams Timothy Russell
Reynaldo Cuevas Chavis Carter Shantel Davis
Henry Dumas Sharmel Edwards Shereese Francis
Wendell Allen Deion Fludd. Flood. Flood.
Flood. The gates of the cemetery
Are now open.” A great tumult started:
Water, the clanging of machetes, and the boy,
My namesake, heading up into the limbs of a tree …